Taslima and Salman: A Fatwa With a Difference

By Jacqueline Swartz | October 18, 2002

When Taslima Nasrin, the Bangladesh physician/writer, appears at the Festival of Authors, she will no doubt be called the female Salman Rushdie. True, she’s the second writer to live under a fatwa, the Islamic threat of death issued for blaspheming Islam. But the differences between Nasrin and Rushdie, female and male transgressors against Islam, are more telling than the similarities.

First, a difference that has nothing to do with being male or female. Rushdie wasn’t in Iran when the death threat was pronounced by the Ayatollah. He had immediate support and security protection by the British government. But when Taslima Nasrin’s book, Shame, was banned in l993, she was living in her native Bangladesh. It’s hard to imagine being more vulnerable. "There were huge demonstrations," she told me when I interviewed her recently by telephone from her home in Stockholm. "I was attacked, people threw stones at me. I saw screaming crowds of 300,000 people demonstrating for one reason only: to kill me." Instead of protecting Nasrin, the government of Bangledesh launched a suit against her for hurting the religious feelings of the Muslim majority (85% of the population). Bangladesh feminist groups were afraid to support her openly. She went into hiding, slept in a different place very night for several months, and then, with the help of international women’s and human rights groups, fled to Europe.

Nasrin left behind her family and friends, the only country she had ever known and the inspiration and location for her work. Her books show a keen attachment to the people of Bangladesh and a sensuous appreciation of the sounds and smells, the food and the colours of a country that before the l990’s, seemed immune to religious fanaticism. Taslima also had to leave
behind the most valuable tool for a writer: language. She writes in Bengali, but there is not a lot of opportunity to speak it in Stockholm, where she now lives. Other differences go well beyond accidents of location.Because she is woman and an outspoken feminist, Nasrin’s criticism of religion carries a special sting.

When Meyebela, the girlhood memoir that Nasrin will read from at Harbourfront, was banned in Bangladesh, the charge was pornography. "Male writers," Nasrin told me, "can write explicit stuff, but when women write about being oppressed, that’s considered pornography."

Years before, when she started writing about the poor treatment women get in Bangladesh, no one objected. "But when I started saying that women are oppressed by religion, then the problem started and I lost my support."

In her newspaper columns and novels, Taslima refused to blunt her edges. She criticized Islam not in the mocking, surreal way Rushdie did in The Satanic Verses but by unambiguously calling it a system that is antithetical to female dignity and human rights. "Rushdie writes for aesthetic reasons; I write to change society", she told me. Changing society is urgent for her in a way it is not for him: nothing will improve for women while religion remains the source of law.

"Sharia [the Islamic legal code} confines women to second class status and orders them to obey husbands and fathers." She is against all monotheistic religions, but adds that in secular states religion is at least a matter of choice.

After Salman Rushdie made his apology, asking that The Satanic Verses not be published or translated further, and claiming that he was a kind of born-again moderate Muslim, Nasrin criticized him for it. For her, "moderate Islam" is a contradiction in terms.

"Islam says that women should follow the orders of the husband. So if Islam is practiced in society, even good socioeconomic conditions can’t change the condition of women. Look at Saudi Arabia."

Rushdie’s fatwa has been lifted. For Nasrin it continues. Recanting would mean going against her basic values and beliefs. As a result, she cannot return to "my country", as she always refers to it, even to see her gravely-ill father. Nasrin’s courage extends to police protection. "I had bodyguards for a few years, but I was suffocating, so I asked not to have them." But when she speaks at universities, the police are there to protect her from hecklers and possible attacks from Islamic Student Organizations. At Concordia, they prevented her from completing her lecture—not as bad as the Islamic students in Nottingham, who tried to attack her physically and were prevented from doing so by the police.

Nasrin dismisses these threats. "They’re not much compared to the mobs I’ve faced in my country". But she is impatient with Western cultural relativists. "It is the Western fashion now to defend different cultures," she told me. "I have been attacked in Europe for criticizing Islam, and told that the position of women in Bangladesh is very good. But women are still stoned to death in Bangladesh."

In fact, women are most often the ones who suffer from the misguided Western tolerance of cruel and unjust practices: genital mutilation of girls was until recently passed off as
"female circumcision" by many Westerners. Before September 11, the women of Afghanistan got less sympathy—and far less media coverage–than the dynamited Buddhas. Nasrin doesn’t accept this double standard, whether it occurs within the Islamic world or elsewhere. "When men are oppressed people call it torture," she says. "When women are oppressed they call it tradition".

There’s another double standard, one that is not as visible and can’t be legislated away. It has to do with the emotional support that is so basically vital that it seems almost biological. Rushdie, typical of male dissenters, has been able attract female partners; he now lives with a former model in New York. Nasrin lives alone. It seems that no matter how seriously they clash with the establishment, male iconoclasts and artists reliably attract women who can be counted on to soothe their revolutionary brows and provide support and nourishment, emotional and sexual. The situation tends to be the opposite for women who choose to take on authority: What makes a male rebel attractive (assuming he’s not pathologically violent) makes a female unattractive.

Taslima said that when she first came to Sweden, women warned her to try not to identify herself as a feminist. "It’s funny, in my country feminism means you don’t care about family life," she said. "You sleep around, you’re a loose woman. In the West it means you don’t care about sex and romance." No one who reads her passionate love poetry could accuse her of that.

Tasmila Nasrin will be interviewed by Eleanor Wachtel at the International Festival of Authors at Harbourfront on October 26. On Oct 27 she will read from her memoir, Meyebela, My Bengali Girlhood.

October 18, 2002 1102 w.


  • Jacqueline Swartz

    Jacqueline Swartz lives in Toronto and sometimes in San Francisco. She writes for mass-circulation magazines and has completed a novel, A Cure For Loneliness in Paris.

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