By Aminah Sheikh
“Let Another Name for Religion be Humanism.” It was these words that had lured me, a seventeen-year-old Muslim girl, into buying Lajja from an almost non-functional bookstore in my hometown. I’d got my hands on the book five years after it was published. Back then, I didn’t know much about Taslima Nasrin, except that she was a Bangladeshi Muslim writer, penning some not–so-good things about the community, as overheard during conversations between elders. I recall the day I bought the book, and was wondering if I should hide it. I didn’t. In fact, after reading the book in one sitting, I walked up to my mother and asked, “Why was this book banned? Why was a fatwa issued against her? What wrong did she write?” My mother’s reply was simple but had a deep impact on me then. She said, “Every individual has an opinion and feels differently. We must be tolerant of others’ views. Allah has given us a mind, we should use it. And never cause any human being harm or drive anyone out of their home.”
Taslima Nasrin was driven out of her home in 1994.
“A Free Bird” was her first poem at the age of 13, Taslima’s first writing ever. “I wanted to be like a free bird, wanted to fly in the open blue sky,” she fondly recalls, in an email interaction with Kitaab. Her poems were published in literary magazines, followed by her opinion pieces on culture in national newspapers. In the years that followed, her views, expressed through her writings, on women’s rights and criticism of religious fundamentalism in a conservative patriarchal society, made many uncomfortable to the extent they grew intolerant of Taslima’s existence itself.
“Before writing Lajja, I wrote several books. One of them was Nirbacita Kolam, and that book was a turning point. The book consists of my feminist writings,” she adds. The undercurrents in the minds of religious extremists against this very bold writer had already begun to gather steam in Bangladesh and perhaps Lajja was the last straw. In September 1993, a fatwa was issued against her and a reward offered for her death. Taslima’s life as a medical officer was also put on hold. “I had to quit my job as a medical officer at the government hospital because the government wanted me to stop writing books. I was obviously punished for no fault of mine. I got busy with my writings. And gave up being sad for their injustices against me,” she recounts. Although Taslima was born in a Muslim family, she was raised in a secular atmosphere. “It (being secular) was not uncommon in 1960s and 70s Bangladesh. Most of my family members were not practicing Muslims. Some of them were atheists. It was not common during my time for young women to wear hijabs or young men to go to mosques. It is a recent phenomenon after massive Islamisation of Bangladesh,” she explains.
After leaving Bangladesh, she lived in America and Europe for close to ten years before Taslima adopted West Bengal, India, as her second home. In November 2007 she was forced to leave Kolkata after violent mobs took to the street, demanding she leave the city. “I am now a prohibited name,” she says. Her latest book EXILE: A Memoir translated by Maharghya Chakraborty and published by Penguin, chronicles Taslima’s seven months of struggle in India following the riot-like situation in Kolkata. In Taslima’s words, Exile is about the banishment of a secular humanist writer from a secular democratic India. “I was shocked to see how freedom of expression of a secular writer was violated. I was banished from India even though I loved the country and dedicated my life to work for the awareness of women’s human rights.” She adds, “Nobody would have returned but I did. Probably my love for India is much more than those who claimed themselves as patriots but oppress women, hate poor, and do not hesitate to exploit people for their own interests.”
Having writing about injustice and inequalities that led to 22 years of exile, looking back, would she have done anything differently? “I would do the same thing what I had done in the 1990s. I told the truth. I fought for women’s rights, humanism and freedom of expression. These are good for all times,” says Taslima.
After all that she has lived through, from awards and praises to banishment, Taslima holds on to her belief that organised religion is against free speech and human rights, against rationalism and humanism. “It prevents people from being enlightened. It is against individual freedom and plurality of thoughts and for group loyalty. If you make organised religion powerful, your society will never get to be an equal society,” she says. Needless to say, on the current debate, on abolishing “triple talaq”, Taslima is of the opinion that in no civilised world can anti-women laws exist.
Taslima feels exile has made her stronger and more committed to her cause, although publishers in Bangladesh and West Bengal do not publish her books, and only pirated copies of her book are available in Bangladesh. For her, home is still in Mymensingh (Bangladesh). “It’s where I was born and brought up near the river Bramhaputra. The peaceful home with my courageous father, my loving and caring mother, and my fun-loving brothers and sister,” she shares.
When asked if she fears for her life, Taslima says, “I do not fear for my life. The pen is mightier than the sword. Otherwise people with swords would not be so desperate to snatch my pen.”
Aminah Sheikh is the Online Editor of Kitaab