Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen on what it means to live under death threats and in a world where cultural freedom is constantly under attack.
Controversy has become second nature to Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen. The most recent was the cancellation of the release of her latest book Nirbasan at the Kolkata Book Fair after fundamentalists threatened to disrupt the event. This came days after Salman Rushdie was barred from coming to India to attend the Jaipur Literature Festival. Nasreen, whose strong views on Islam and women's issues have regularly sparked controversies, continues to fight for her right to freedom of expression. Excerpts from an interview:
You have been barred from entering Bangladesh, your homeland, and can't live in Kolkata, where you feel at home. How painful it is to live like this?
Very painful. Both the ‘Bengals' — Bangladesh and West Bengal — have abandoned me. I am a Bengali writer but am not allowed to go to either of these places. But I'll fight until my death for my right to go back to Bengal. I am against the idea of not being allowed to live there and express myself only because I say something that some people do not like. I want the government not to violate freedom of expression. Even if I offend or criticise others, I should still be allowed to stay there with dignity and honour. Also, not being able to live in the country or the state where my language is spoken is affecting my writing. I don't know how my language is evolving. I want to know how the young talk today, whether they use the same words as my grandparents and parents did. This is important for me as a writer.
How real is the threat from the fundamentalists?
It was not the fundamentalists who demanded that Nirbasan not be released at the Kolkata Book Fair. It was the authorities who decided to stop it. This problem of fundamentalists attacking me started when the West Bengal government banned Dwikhandito. Had they not banned the book, the questions of attacks on me, setting price on my head, demands for my deportation and cancellation of my book launch would not have risen. I could have continued to live in Kolkata had the government wanted and the fundamentalists couldn't have done anything.
This intolerance towards freedom of speech and expression is growing. Does it worry you?
Yes it does. It seems intolerance is increasing all over the world. In that respect, India is no different. Islamic fundamentalism started rising after the collapse of communism. It's destroying the possibility of many countries becoming secular and democratic. But it is also true that people who believe in human rights and freedom of expression have been protesting all over the world.
What does it mean to live with fear and under death threats?
I have got used to it. I started getting threats from the late 1980s. There is one incident, dating back to the 1990s, which I can never forget. I used to write columns for newspapers on women's issues. Once I was going to my medical college in a rickshaw. On the way, I came across an anti-Taslima procession of some 50,000 fanatics. They were shouting my name and asking for me to be hanged to death. I sat still as the procession passed. I was scared and the enormity of the situation was still to sink in. Once the crowd cleared, the rickshaw puller said, “Taslima should be hanged, she dared to attack Islam.” He had no idea that Taslima was sitting in his rickshaw. I sometimes feel that I'll be killed by the fundamentalists. But I don't want to restrict my movements.
Isn't it sad that, despite having written so many books on women's issues, you are still referred to as the author of Lajja?
There are many people who read only one book of mine and that is Lajja. And there are many people who hear that I criticise Islam, so they dig out the book to find some traces of criticism. Many get disappointed for not finding anything. What is interesting is that Lajja is probably the only book I have written where there is no criticism of Islam.
You have written extensively on feminism and vociferously supported women's issues. Do you think feminism in South Asia has evolved over the years?
Feminist movement is not very strong here. After all, women didn't really fight for the rights they have in India. They didn't have to fight for voting rights like their counterparts in the West. It was men who fought for women, to educate them, to ban sati, to stop child marriage, to get widows remarried and so on. A recent survey has found India is the fourth most dangerous place for women; and is the deadliest place for a girl child. This is shocking. Female foeticide (It is ‘femicide', a kind of genocide against women), female infanticide, sex trafficking, sexual slavery, domestic violence, dowry murder, bride burning are increasing. It's actually a war against women.
Do you plan to write the eighth part of your autobiography?
I guess so. I earlier thought I would finish it with the seventh volume but I continue to live. That means I'll keep writing.