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INTERVIEW

No religion gives women freedom

Interview with Taslima Nasreen.

Sunday 8 February 2004, by CHATTOPADHYAY*Suhrid Sankar

The exiled Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen was in Kolkata in January to release the fourth part of her autobiographical series, Sei Sob Andhakar (literal translation: All That Darkness). In the wake of the controversy stirred by the previous part of her autobiography, Dwikhandita (literal translation: Split in Two), which was banned by the Left Front government in West Bengal, Nasreen’s presence in the city resulted in demonstrations by minority groups, and the imam of a city mosque even issued a fatwa (edict). Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay spoke to the writer on the banning of her book, the recent court cases against her in Bangladesh and Kolkata filed by fellow writers, religious fundamentalism and the latest part of her autobiographical series. Excerpts from the conversation:

What was your reaction when you first heard about the banning of your book Dwikhandita in West Bengal?

It took me totally by surprise. I could never even imagine such a thing happening. I can see this happening in Bangladesh where there is an extreme right-wing government. In fact, if one of my books is not banned in Bangladesh, it takes me by surprise (smiles). But what really astonished me was that the principal advocates of this banning were the so-called liberal, progressive writers. In fact, they are very good friends of mine. I really have no idea how one can be a writer and demand that another writer’s book be banned.

The reason cited for the ban is that there are sections in the book that might ignite communal tension.

I don’t see anything in the relevant pages of the book (49 and 50) that might cause riots. Also, is it correct to underestimate Muslims so much? Are Muslims so ignorant, illiterate, intolerant and combustible when faced with any kind of criticism about their religion? It is through constructive criticism that a society develops and progresses. That is the aim of a modern society. Changes have to be brought in. If we do not point out the faults even now, then how will an Islamic society make progress?

In those two pages I have merely cited a part of Islamic history. I have not made it up. I just wanted to show that Islam and the Prophet are not infallible. Many say that Islam has given women due importance, but that is not the case actually. In fact, I have written in the book that in the pre-Islamic Arab world, women had far more independence and importance, and that independence was taken away from them by the establishment of Islam.

Syed Shamsul Haque has taken you to court in Dhaka for the contents of Ka (Bangladeshi edition of Dwikhandita), and poet Hasmat Jalal has moved the court in Kolkata, alleging that you painted a false picture of his character and religious views.

They know exactly what they have said. If they lie now what can I do? Hasmat Jalal has specifically told me that in West Bengal the Muslim community is neglected. There is no reason for me to put words into their mouths.

As for my relationships portrayed in Dwikhandita, I know there are people who object to it. Sunil Gangopadhyay (eminent Bengali writer) has said personal relationships behind closed doors is a private matter and should not be brought out in the open. But I am writing my autobiography. I will have to write about things that have made an impact on me, which have helped me develop into what I am today. All these experiences are important to me. I have not betrayed anyone, I have not told anyone that I will not be writing about my relationship with that person. There are people who have relationships out of wedlock, but when somebody comes out with it in the open, it is found unacceptable in society, especially if the person concerned is a woman. The reaction to the contents in Dwikhandita both in Bangladesh and West Bengal has been the same. As for those talking about morality and reputation, if they are so concerned about that, then why abandon them in secret? A progressive intellectual and writer of the stature of Shamsul Haque in Bangladesh has gone on record as saying that I should be hanged. In what way is this different in outlook from a fundamentalist?

What is Sei Sob Andhakar about?

It is the fourth part of my autobiography. It takes of from where Dwikhandita ends. Dwikhandita ends with the issuing of the fatwa in Bangladesh and the general uproar over my book. Sei Sob Andhakar starts from there. I went to Paris to attend a seminar on press freedom and came back to Dhaka from there via Kolkata. In Kolkata, at a press conference I had spoken of some of the Shariat laws that need to be amended. That was misinterpreted and I was quoted as saying that the Quran needed to be amended. In Bangladesh, the fundamentalists were already up in arms against me, and after this news reached them, they went berserk. Every day thousands started staging demonstrations against me, issuing fatwas one after the other, declaring bandhs, and the government, instead of taking action against them, turned on me, accusing me of hurting the religious sentiments of people. By then the mullahs started demanding my death through hanging and instigated lakhs of people to take to the streets. On the one hand there was the police hunting me down, and on the other fundamentalists were baying for my blood. My lawyer then advised me to go into hiding. Matters had come to such a head that even if I had given myself up, I would certainly have been killed in prison. So, I spent the next two months in hiding and darkness. The whole country was in the grasp of fundamentalists at that time. Sei Sob Andhakar is about those two months in hiding and it ends with my leaving the country. This is more like a documentation of the time - my situation and the society outside. It is a documentation of how fundamentalism, with the support of a government, can become dangerously powerful.

Do you think that this book will also create controversy because it is obvious that you have spoken out strongly against Islamic fundamentalists here?

There is no problem if I write against fundamentalists, that happens only if I write against religion. All these events have taken place only because I criticised religion and Islam in my autobiographies. Now, if I have to omit my views on religion, then it is as good as censoring my life. Not just Islam, I believe no religion gives women freedom. But since I lived in an Islamic society, that was what I wrote most about.

I personally don’t think Sei Sob Andhakar will give rise to any kind of controversy. But then my views on religion are there in all my books.

Will this book also contain accounts of your personal relationships?

No, this is only about the two months I spent in hiding in Bangladesh.

After the fatwa declared on you by the imam of a city mosque and the demonstrations against you asking you to leave the country, do you still find Kolkata a safe place for you to stay?

I think they had the guts to issue this kind of a fatwa only because the book has been banned. Today in Kolkata, the fatwa is to blacken my face and to garland me with shoes and claim Rs.20,000. If this is not checked, the next thing they may very well issue is a reward of Rs.1 lakh for my severed head. In Bangladesh, the man who first offered a reward of Taka 50,000 for my head was totally unknown before that. Now that movement has become so big that a number of its members are in the Bangladesh Parliament. This happened because nobody opposed him in the beginning.

This is not just an issue concerning me. This raises an important question: do the people of West Bengal want writers to have their freedom? It is up to them to decide. But in spite of this, I find it totally safe in Kolkata. The ordinary people love me as much as before.

What are you doing in the United States?

I am working as a research scholar at Harvard University on "Secularisation of Islamic countries". I am studying the scope and possibilities of making these countries secular. This is one of my favourite subjects, and I intend to bring out one day the results of my research in book form. It will also deal with how, in different Islamic countries, the secular movement began, why it was destroyed, why fundamentalism is on the rise.

What is your next book going to be about?

I don’t know if I shall write a novel soon, but the next part of my autobiography will be about my life in exile. It will be called Ami Bhalo Nei, Tumi Bhalo Theko Priyo Desh (literal translation: I am not well, you remain well beloved country). I have not yet started writing it, but it is all in my mind.

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Frontline, volume 21 - Issue 03, January 31 - February 13, 2004.

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