Much to the surprise of all, ire of many and perhaps relief of some, controversial feminist writer Taslima Nasreen, known as a rabblerouser casting aspersions on and showing disrespect for Islam, secretly left Dhaka and arrived on 10 August 1995 in Stockholm where she intends to relax and write on the agonics she suffered during the two months of her hiding prior 10 secking anticipatory bail which was granted by the High Court division of the Supreme Court of Bangladeshi on 3 August 1995. Within a week of her stay there, on 16 August, she has been awarded a literary prize in Sweden.
Taslima, reached Stockholm on a tourist visa upon an invitation of the Swedish PEN (poets, cssayists and novelists) club. Swedish Culture Minister Bright Friggebo said that she was “forced to leave her country for using her natural rights to write and say whatever she wants”. Margaretha af Ugglas, Sweden’s Foreign Minister, told reportcrs that she had got invitation from many other countries and that “il is up to Nasreen to decidc” whether she would seek asylum there, Norway is reported to have said it would consider offering her asylum).
A Swedish Foreign Ministry spokesman pointed out that she had been able to leave Bangladesh legally adding that the Swedish Government had been involved in her case for a long time, The European Union had offered her asylum while she was in hiding. Earlier, German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel offered her asylum in Germany or any other European Union country of her choice.
Stating that every citizen had the right to go abroad if there was no legal bar, Information Minister Barrister Nazmul Huda said that allegations against her were the subject-matter of the court whose decision would prevail and added that the Government had the constitutional responsibility to ensure her security because like any other citizen she had the right to protection of her life and property. Bangladesh missions abroad also have the responsibility to look after her rights and interests if need be, he said. Quoting diplomatic sources the official news agency of Bangladesh reported that Canada appreciated the role of Dhaka in handling the case of Taslima. The protection provided to her by the Government in compliance with the court’s decision has also been reportedly favourably received in Canada.
Taslima’s objectionable reported statement against the Holy Quran angered the pro-Islamic forces which started agitations since mid-May and demanded her punishment for blasphemy. On 29 July pro-Islamic groups organised a long march towards Dhaka and held a big rally at the Manik Mia Avenue facing the Jatiya Sangsad building to press their demand for trial of Taslima Nasreen and the enactment of a blasphemy law.
The Jamaat-e-Islami(JI), which had earlier submitted a bill to Parliament for enactment of blasphemy law to punish those who make adverse comments against the Quran and the Prophet of Islam, also organised a rally in Dhaka on the same day to press similar demands. · While the JI chief Prof. Golam Azam told newsmen after she was granted bail that pro-Islamic parties believed in the rule of law, most of the Islamic parties remained silent on the granting of bail to Taslima Nasreen. However, some Islamic groups have criticised the Government for letting her escape. No political party or group lent support to her, not even the Awami League whose chief Sheikh Hasina once accused the Government of using the Taslima Nasreen issue to obscure the opposition’s main political demand
Reports have it that as she had been no restriction on her movements as long as she is holding a valid passport so there had no restriction on her movements as long she abided by the bail conditions. The Workers party General Secretary Rashed Khan Menon said that Taslima Nasreen had caused irreparable damage to the nation besides causing much harm to respect for religion, tolerance to the opinion of others and communal harmony.
Earlier, Ms. Amena Kahtun, General Secretary of the Swadesh Party, sued the BBC for telecasting a news programme interviewing Taslima Nasreen on 30 June which, she felt, hurt the religious sentiments of the Muslims including herself. Previously, she served legal notice to the Home Ministry for not making any attempt to arrest her and the Information Ministry for allowing the BBC to televise the interview through the Bangladesh TV. The BBC sources said they had duly replied to the legal notice.
In her application for bail to the High Court Taslima Nasreen stated that she never uttered any words of the kind alleged nor had any intentions whatsoever to injure the religious feelings of any person. If the words mistakenly ascribed to her caused injury to the religious feelings of any persons, “she regrets and is genuinely sorry that newspaper in question published the words erroneously ascribed to her”. But the Jamaat-e-Islami questioned as to how she could appear in the court under police escort and demanded a clear statement from the Government.
She was accused of hurting the religious sentiments of the Muslims, an act of blasphemy regarding which there exists no law in Bangladesh but if convicted one could suffer a jail term for two years. According to theological sources, blasphemy as a sin is peculiar to Christianity; Judaism and Islam. In olden days Louis le Debonaire followed Charlemagne’s laws against blasphemy which inflicted death penalty and so was Jewish law in ancient times. Unless he or she repents, a Muslim has to suffer death penalty for blasphemy.
A Greek proverb says that nothing is worse than a woman, even a good one, while according to a Latin saying women are worthless wares. A. German adage goes like this that there is no good woman in the world, while according to a French phrase’women pardon great infidelities.
But in Bangladesh probably no pejorative proverb on women exists though gender discrimination in this patriarchal society does prevail. But we should remember what Bernard Shaw said: “The male sex still constitutes in many ways, the most obstinate vested interest”.
Ordinary people of this Muslim-majority country are quite secular, not fundamentalists. According to a new Bengali daily published from Dhaka, the New York Times (NYT) in its 7 August issue said that the people of Bangladesh are traditionally tolerant to religions adding that what is going on in Bangladesh over the past months centering on a controversial author (Taslima Nasreen) is politically motivated.
The NYT has been further quoted as saying that fundamentalism and fanaticism are not the same, adding that every great religion draws strength from its fundamental principles and thus believers of every religion are fundamentalists. Some years ago, perhaps in 1989, Maulana M. Ali Chaklader published a book in Bengali titled Quran O Sunnal-Bhittik Manab Jiban Japan Byabastha in which he called upon people to maintain communal harmony quoting from the Suras baqara, Kafirum, Kahaf and Sapia of the Holy Quran.
It is universally recognised that women were deprived of their rights in this country for the remedy of which no other Bengali poet was so articulate as poet Kazi Nazrul Islam was. Nazrul-who in his famous song “Kandari Husiar’ wrote “who dares question who is Hindu or Muslim? — They are all offspring’s of my mother—was the only writer in Bengali literature to champion communal harmony in many of his writings.
Bengali Muslim writers were not unheard of even in the mid-19th century, and later on the pioneer of Muslim education in Bengal, Begum Rokeya, earned fame as a writer. But oblivious of these facts, Taslima Nasreen, a half-baked writer, has used shocking, filthy and obscene language to criticise. this more or less male-dominated society.
In contemporary Bangladesh—where educated as well as illiterate women work in schools, offices and garments and other factoriesthere are a good number of women writers, poets and essayists who have been making serious efforts at portraying the socio-economic problems and issues in a decent, cohesive and balanced way.
The number of our women academics in the universities and their enlightened publications is not too small to be ignored. Besides, several women’s organisations have been working since the late sixties for women’s welfare. According to the Inventory for Women’s Oganisations in Bangladesh (UNICEF, 1981), there were 328 registered bodies for women in 1981.
An assistant editor of the daily Ittefaq, Ziaul Haque says that five out of the 10 Union Parishad chairmen of Swarup Khathi tha’na (where the Mazar and Khankah of Peer Shaheb of Sarshina are located) in Pirojpur Zila are Hindus which fact contradicts and does not conform to the fiction of Taslima’s Lajja.
Half-baked Quasi-porn Writer
But none except Nasreen has chosen the path of quasi-pornography and eroticism. While in her novel Bharamar koiyo Giya—the title borrowed from a smash hit folk song of Dilruba Khan—she explains orgasm, in Niniantran the central female character Sheela, a spinster, sees a male Togore-singer Mansur at a function, falls for him and seeks physical union with him which request he complies along with some rapists. Many of her poem contain explicit and obscene description of libiclo and deserve to be marked “for adults only.”
Married to Minar Mansur and Rudra Shahidullah and said to be divorced three times, Talsima, a chain smoker, who in no way a role model in this oriental peaceful society, was an anesthesiologist after qualifying as a physician in the late eighties. There are considerable numbers of female doctors in Bangladesh who probably never utter words concerning genitals even before their patients unless circumstances compel them to, let alone in their deliberations at social gatherings or writings in newspapers.
Well, if she prefers to specialise in porn writing none would probably object to it and none indeed vehemently protested against the grotesque description of biological urge and genitals in her poems and columns as the Bangladesh society is liberal. Tagore’s song is the national anthem of Bangladesh where many Hindu writers are well loved.
The Western media has painted a wrong picture of this country stating that fundamentalists are having a heyday here. James J. Novak, who was the Asia Foundation chief in Dhaka from 1982 to 1985, was reported by the VOA on 12 August as saying that the Western media had been misreporting about the real political backdrop of Bangladesh and that Taslima was tried under Section 295, and not under a blasphemy act. He mentioned that the ruling BNP Government is not pro-Islamic adding that the largest Islamic party is working together with the largest secular party of Bangladesh, which means the Awami League, adding that the Western media is missing this very point. The parties in question are obviously the Awami League and the Jamaat-e-Islami.
Concern for women’s rights dates from the Enlightenment, says the Britannica. The 18th-century philosopher Condorcet spoke in favour of female emancipation and in 1789, the year of the French Revolution, Olympe de Gouges wrote The Declaration of the Riglits of Womein.
This declaration strongly influenced Mary Wollstonecrest’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women published in England in 1792, – which challenged the idea that women exist only to please men and proposed that women receive the same treatment as men in education, work, and politics and be judged by the same moral standards.
But action was slow in coming. Not until the Married Women’s Property Act of 1870 did British wives secure the right to own property. While back in the 7th century Islam ensured women the right to own property, not until 1919 were British women allowed to run for Parliament; and not until 1928 did they get the voting right.
In the United States the feminist movement first coalesced in July, 1848 at the Women’s Rights Convention in New York state where Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott promoted a bill of rights setting forth the inferior and unjust position of women and demanding a redress of wrongs. Out of this grew the movement for women’s suffrage. Right to vote was long delayed-until 1920. Elsewhere, specially in Continental Europe, the situation was often even less progressive. French women did not receive the right to vote until 1944 and still remain, under the Napoleonic Code, severely restricted in property and other rights relative to men and husbands.
(During the World Cup USA 1994 many French women were reported to be bashed by their husbands). This despite France’s long tradition of attracting self-assertive women—such as Madame de Stael, George Sand, Nobel laureate Marie and Gertrude Stein. A modern milestone in feminism was established by Simone de Beauvoir, whose book Le Deuxieme Sexe (1949, the Second Sex 1953) became a worldwide best-seller and raised feminist consciousness by appealing to the idea that liberation for women was liberation for men too.
The next major work was the Feminine Mystique. published in 1963 by Betty Friedan, an American. She attacked deadening domesticity—the conditioning of women to accept passive roles and depend on male dominance. In 1966, she and other feminists founded the national Organisation for Women. Women’s organization for equal rights began proliferating in the late 20th century.
It was the U. S. members of the UN Commission on the Status of Women who were instrumental in having the United Nations declare 1975 International Women’s Year. For the first time women as representatives of their countries met in international conferencemarked especially by giant conference in Mexico City which adopted a World Plan of Action for the ensuing decade. The aim was particularly to advance women’s participation in decision-making and ‘all area of public life.
The women’s liberation movement meets resistance among women as well as men in various societies. (Mentionably, so far as I remember, during the rule of the late Rajiv Gandhi, a bevy of educated ladies of Delhi reportedly met the Indian premier demanding the right to be voluntarily cremated together with their deceased husbands.]
The movement’s goals vary widely from country to country. In parts of Africa women’s objective may be elemental-such as removal of the bride-price. In the Mideast, they may seek relaxation of the dress code and the code of seclusion, says Britannica. In many countries they may decry the wife’s need to get her husband’s permission to sign a contract or bring a lawsuit. In Western Europe they may complain of news-media stereotypes of women. In industrial societies they may demand equal pay for equal work vis-a-vis men.
Though in the 60s and 70s socio-econimic changes opened the traditionally male or men-only occupations to women and behaviour patterns to women, yet many men and women continuc to perceive differences between the sexes along traditional lines and the definition of socially appropriate roles remains in lux, says the Britannica. “When members of either sex adopt roles and attitudes considered appropriate to the other, they frequently counter social opposition,” writes Paul Henry Gebhard, Professor of anthropology, Indian University, USA. The issue of legal control of human sexuality has been discussed by scholars in America and Europe and they have concluded that it “should not be subject to legal control.”
View of Two Weeklies
By the consensus of literary critics, Nasreen, an outspoken feminist and atheist, writes James Walsh of the Time magazine, is no Salman Rushdic. Her rather slapdash storics lack the hell of scrious fiction and have gained notice mainly as screeds against the ill-treatment of women. Five days before her surprise appearance in court to face charges of making inflammatory statements, a crowd of 100,000 demonstrators gathered in Dhaka to bay for her blood. They branded her “an apostate appointed by imperialist forces. ” One particularly militant faction threatened to loose thousands of poisonous snakes in the capital unless she was executed.
Her novel Lajja (Shame), portrays the brutalization of an innocent Hindu Family amid Muslim reprisals. A Hindu chauvinist political party in India used the book for propaganda purposes. Bangladesh banned the book.
“What fully enraged Nasreen’s opponents, however, was an interview with her published in early May by an Indian newspaper, the Statesman of Calcutta, which quoted-misquoted, she insists-a comment by her to the effect that the Quran should be “revised thoroughly.” Islam’s central article of faith is that the Quran is the literal word of God and thus above revision,
“In effect, her surrender placed her at the mercy of Begum Khaleda Zia, the female Prime Minister of an otherwise maledominated country. The bail ruling had clearly been prearranged with Nasreen’s lawyers and the defendant was allowed to keep her passport, Khaleda Zia, who was hoping that Nasreen would quietly skip the country to Scaenjoy her newfound celebrity in the West.
“In Bangladesh, though, even liberals have been loath to champion a deliberately sensational writer who chain smokes, wears her hair in a distinctly untraditional bob and, at the age of 31, ‘has been divorced three times. Laments sccular author Badruddin Umar, “One almost suspects that she is an agent of the fundamentalists.” Her portrayals of men as insects and rapists, along with the darts, she aims at religion have made her an easy target for ultraconservatives who resent much of the change that is transforming society.
Nasreen, while intending to promote feminism, stumbled into a battleground bigger than she anticipated. Even her clarification of the Statesman quote rebounded against her. She explained, “I hold the Quran, the vedas, the Bible and all such religious texts to be out of place and out of time.”
You Call This Literature?
Writcs Paul Gray of the Time, 14 August, “If those mobs in Dhaka howling for Taslima Nasreen’s head had ever read her books they might be really angry. What, for example, would they make of: When (1 dog is chasing you, be warned. That dog lias rabies. When a man is chasing you, be warned. That man has syphilis. (This so-called verse titled Dour, Dour occurs in the collection Amar Kichlu jai Ashe Na meaning, I do not care.)
“This verse may be more nuanced and lyrical in the original Bengali but the English translation conveys qualities that even most of Nasreen’s supporters in Bangladesh readily conccde. She is very angry, not given to nice distinctions, eager to shock and unconcerned with turning fine phrase.
“Thanks to her enemies, Nasreen has become a cause celebre in a West almost totally ignorant of what she has written. ‘Shame’, which has been published in India and translated into English, provides a glimpse. The expanded version of a novella-length work first issued in 1993, Shame tells the story of the Dutta family-father Sudhamoy, mother Kironmoyee, son Suranjan and daughter NilanjanaBangladeshi Hindus caught up in a wave of Mulsim reprisal shortly after the December 1992 destruction of the Babri mosque by Hindu zealots in India.”
“I detest fundamentalism and communalism,” Nasreen announces in her preface, and that is about as subtle as ‘Shame’ ever gets. The Duttas seem to have dropped into Bangladesh from Mars, so alien does the specter of sectarian violence strike them. “Why was his motherland turning her back on him?” Suranjan wonders. Only Nilanjana seems agitated. “She was thinking that no one seemed to realize that something had to be done before something awful happened to all of them.
“Shame’ is stuffed with such slack reasoning and prose. But bad writers deserve protection too. If Nasreen gets out of her troubles, she may even prove that persecution is a smart career move.
Literature A. U. M. Fakhruddin. Journalist, Bangladesh
(Courtesy : Weekly Evidence, Dhaka, dated August 31, 1995)
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