“A war was about to start. Knots of wide-eyed people gathered in courtyards, in open fields, on street corners…. Others were running…clutching bundles under their arms and children on their shoulders. Running, they were running away from cities to villages…. The sound of bullets echoed against the restless fluttering of pigeons’ wings.”
So begins Taslima Nasrin’s memoir of her childhood. It is 1971 and Bangladesh is fighting for its independence from Pakistan. Nine-year-old Taslima is bundled into a carriage with her mother, grandmother and other children to hide out with relatives in the countryside. But soon terrified women refugees appear: The “Punjabis” are coming, and the family must flee further into the countryside to another relative, then another. Finally a truck rolls into the village full of young men with rifles, crying, “Joy Bangla!” Bangladesh is free! The family heads back to their home in Mymensingh, only to be greeted with fury by Baba, Taslima’s father: “Why did you return? The war is not over!” But it is too late to go back that night, and then the soldiers come.
Chhotku, as always, was fast asleep…. It was a good thing, for on that fateful night had he awakened and cried they would have shot not only him but also Yasmin and me, who were sleeping in the same bed. Not that I was asleep. I was simply pretending to be asleep, traveling the land of dreams, playing with fairies, swinging on a high swing, no longer a part of this world. Pretending that I did not know that men wearing heavy boots had entered the room and were walking about, a rifle dangling from every shoulder…. little girl, never mind what those heavy boots do in your room. You must continue to sleep. Make sure your eyelids do not flutter, your limbs do not move, your fingers remain still. Your heart must not tremble–if it does, hide that tremor from these men when they lift the mosquito net and look at you, lust and desire pouring from their eyes, flames shooting out of their mouths as they speak in a language you cannot understand. Keep absolutely still when they flash a light on your face, your chest, your thighs. They must see that you are not yet fully grown, you are not even an adolescent, your breasts have not yet appeared!
Thus we are plunged into the drama of a large extended family living in close quarters, seen through the candid eyes of a little girl whose memory records everything, even if she can’t make sense of it at the time. There is no adult consciousness in Meyebela; the voice is that of the child Taslima, and while we see what she sees, we know that her fears and imagination may be coloring events. Sometimes this is clear, as above, sometimes not. Since her household is in a constant state of turmoil, Taslima finds it hard to get her bearings, and the reader has the same problem: The narrative voice and time frame seem to tremble from time to time, like a lantern flickering in a room where a child is being beaten–for it soon becomes clear that soldiers will not be the main source of violence in this story. We see it all, every beating and injustice, every thwarted love and forced marriage, every hysterical fit and religious excess, in a household so dysfunctional no soap opera could do it justice, a household that is like a funhouse mirror, reflecting the features of society in a way that emphasizes the distortions: religious repression, female illiteracy, cruelty toward servants and the sexual abuse that descends without warning upon children, so that home is no refuge but a place of fear, and the ground is constantly shifting under their feet. And thus we begin to understand the anger that drives the author.
I kept thinking, as I read the first few chapters of Meyebela, what does this book remind me of? Then I realized: In reading Maxim Gorky’s My Childhood, or watching the movie version by Mark Donskoi, one experiences the same violence, the same illiteracy and emotional underdevelopment, the same brutality toward children, the same lack of solid ground under one’s feet so that, because of the capricious actions of unreliable adults, a child can lose everything in a moment. I believe that like Gorky’s memoirs, Meyebela will become a classic and a school text in many countries. This will enable discussion of important issues, because Nasrin’s memoir is about the dark things that happen in families in every part of the world, like other disturbing texts now taught in US schools: The Bluest Eye, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Bastard Out of Carolina. But, because it is such a powerful child’s-eye presentation of a particular, rural Bangladeshi variation of Islam, Meyebela will be problematic as an educational tool in the United States today, where people are constantly being told that Muslims are evil. In a society that knows little about any variety of Islam, the dark picture painted by Nasrin may be universalized, and welcomed all too eagerly.
But if Taslima Nasrin had worried about such things, she would not have become a human rights case. She tried to knock down every taboo in her society, writing about religion, ethnic violence, sex, all at the same time, crash! And she is still doing it. Nasrin did not have to flee Bangladesh merely because she wrote a novel about the persecution of its Hindu minority or told an Indian reporter the Sharia (Islamic law) was outdated and should be left behind. Other Bangladeshi writers, male and female, have said such things; some have also been threatened by fundamentalists; but most are still there. Nasrin combined the violation of those taboos with an even more daring transgression: She opened the closet door on a whole world of subterranean sexual experience and feeling, much of it abusive, and none of it considered fit to be discussed. She wrote about sex and religion and state politics all together, and she did it at a bad time, when fundamentalism was on the rise. The combination did her in.
Nasrin’s problems began when her newspaper columns were brought out as a book, Nirbachitha, and won an important literary prize given by Ananda Bazaar Patrika, a newspaper published in Calcutta. In January 1993, when she tried to board a plane to Calcutta, she was denied an exit visa on the grounds that her occupation (she is both a physician and a writer) was listed incorrectly on her passport. As a result, the government confiscated her passport.
The next month her novel Lajja (Shame) was published. Nasrin wrote Lajja in a white heat in 1992, after Hindu nationalists of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) destroyed the ancient Babri mosque in Ayodhya. This act led to terrible communal riots in India, with many deaths on both sides. (The same BJP is now running the Indian government and trying to erect a temple on the site of the destroyed mosque, which they believe to have been the birthplace of the god Rama.) In response to this provocation by Hindu extremists in India, Muslims in Bangladesh attacked Hindu families and businesses, resulting in terror, destruction and confiscation of property. Lajja, which showed the sufferings of one Hindu family, was a sensation, selling 50,000 copies in Bangladesh in its first six months of publication. It was also widely promoted by the BJP in India, in pirated editions.
The BJP’s use of Nasrin’s book to encourage anti-Muslim feeling in India angered many in Bangladesh, while its content enraged religious extremists, who pressured the government to withdraw it from circulation. The party in power at the time was the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which banned it in July 1993. The ban was publicly protested by writers and human rights activists, who saw it as a sign of the growing influence of the religious right.
It was not the only sign. Ain O Salish Kendra, a Bangladeshi women’s humanrights organization, had been documenting a noticeable increase in crimes of violence against women in the countryside, as religious zealots had begun to take the law into their own hands, returning to punishments that were sanctioned by Sharia but outlawed under the Bangladeshi civil code. In January 1993 a newly married couple in Sylhet was buried chest-deep and stoned for zina (adultery) because the woman had previously been divorced; in May, a woman in Madhukhali was burned at the stake, also for zina. In response to such events, Nasrin’s newspaper columns became more militant. On September 1, 1993, a tribunal in Kaligani, led by the superintendent of the local madrassah (religious school), condemned a 16-year-old girl to a public flaying with 101 lashes; she had been accused of having an affair with a Hindu boy. After the beating, the girl died, allegedly a suicide. Nasrin wrote a newspaper column about this incident, calling upon the government to indict the mullahs involved for premeditated murder.
The backlash was swift. On September 16, 500 members of the Bangladesh Sahaba Sainik Parishad, or Council of Soldiers for Islam (CSI), a militant group based in a madrassah in Sylhet, held a rally calling for Nasrin to be executed for “blasphemy and conspiracy against Islam, the Holy Koran and its prophet.” On September 23 they offered a bounty of $1,250 for her death within fifteen days. On October 2 they staged another march, this time threatening a general strike unless she was arrested by October 7. Though political strikes are common in Bangladesh, they are not normally aimed at individuals.
September 11, 2001, shows these events in a new light. Wahhabism, the extremely strict form of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia, had not only penetrated the countryside in Pakistan and Afghanistan (where the Taliban captured Kabul in 1996) but was also gaining a foothold in Bangladesh, carried by migrant laborers and spread by modern communications. Sylhet had been a center of emigration since the 1950s; thousands of young men went abroad each year to settle and send money home to their families; increasingly, they went to the Middle East. The money they earned there enabled them to come back and become landowners and leaders in their villages, and to set up madrassahs that taught the Saudi variation of Islam. The fatwa put on Taslima Nasrin in 1993 must now be seen as an early warning signal that this globalized, politicized form of Islamic fundamentalism was growing more aggressive and looking for an opportunity to test its strength in Bangladesh.
On October 21, 1993, leaders of the CSI held a press conference in Dhaka to announce they were spreading the campaign against Nasrin throughout the country. They demanded that she be executed and said that if the government did not oblige, they would try her themselves. They also announced the inauguration of a new campaign to institute the death penalty for blasphemy and other crimes against Islam, the Prophet Mohammed or the Koran. Members of the group had already brought charges against two of Nasrin’s books in private legal suits, on the grounds that they questioned Islamic law and offended religious sentiments.
A brief item on this press conference went out on an AP wire and was picked up in England, and the London office of International PEN notified me, as I was then chair of its Women Writers’ Committee. I obtained Nasrin’s contact information from Ain O Salish Kendra and began a regular correspondence with her by fax.
International PEN and Amnesty International wrote the Bangladeshi government about returning her passport, which it did in April 1994. Nasrin left the country in May to speak in Paris. On her way home she passed through India and gave an interview to a reporter from the Calcutta Statesman, who asked provocatively if she would support changes in the Koran. Nasrin’s affirmative reply, which she says was misquoted, created a great furor in Bangladesh, and she wrote the Statesman to clarify her views on May 11, 1994:
I do not hold the view that “the Koran should be revised thoroughly,” because I think it is impossible to revise the Koran…. Why should we try to change a religious text which is held as sacred by many? My view on this issue is clear and categorical. I hold the Koran, the Vedas, the Bible, and all such religious texts determining the lives of their followers as “out of place and out of time.” We have crossed the sociohistorical contexts in which these were written and therefore we should not be guided by their precepts. The question of revision, thorough or otherwise, is irrelevant. We have to move beyond these ancient texts if we want to progress. In order to respond to our spiritual needs, let humanism be our new faith.
A leading Bangladeshi cleric told the press that her retraction was worse than her original statement and more filthy than The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie. Another called Nasrin “an apostate appointed by imperialist forces to vilify Islam,” put a price of $2,500 on her head and called for her immediate death by hanging. The following week, 5,000 members of the extremist Muslim party Jamaat-e-Islami staged a demonstration in Dhaka calling for Nasrin’s execution. This was an alarming development; the campaign against her was no longer confined to an obscure rural sect but had reached the capital.
And why did the government of Bangladesh not act against these extremists? Then as now, it was led by the BNP under Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia, and Jamaat-e-Islami, which then held a number of seats in Parliament, was a member of its coalition. If the Prime Minister had moved against the Islamists in 1993, Jamaat might have withdrawn from the coalition and her government might have fallen. So Prime Minister Zia sacrificed democracy to party expediency and gave in to the fundamentalist agenda. On June 4, 1994, the police chief in central Dhaka filed a case against Nasrin under Section 295A of the Penal Code, which provides for two years’ imprisonment for “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage the religious feelings of any class of citizens by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.” A warrant was issued for her arrest, and she and her family went into hiding.
At that point Taslima Nasrin became an international press sensation, the “female Rushdie,” a poster girl for the oppression of Muslim women. Such international press interest was unprecedented for a writer who had not even been translated into one of the “power languages”; of course it was a good story, with an appealing heroine who could be presented as a damsel in distress, but despite the fact that the Western press was sympathetic, I soon came to see their coverage as a double-edged sword. Many of the reporters I talked to seemed to want to use the story as a stick with which to beat Islam; I would talk about the rising tide of all kinds of religious extremism, Christian, Jewish and Muslim; but none of that ever got into a story. The Western press tended to portray her solely as a victim and symbol of the oppression of Muslim women, downplaying her courage and ignoring the work of the Bangladeshi women’s movement. And, worst of all, every new Western article or broadcast about Nasrin seemed to create a more vigorous desire to kill her back home; her persecutors reveled in the publicity. Huge crowds of bearded men marched in the streets of Dhaka, holding up her picture and shaking nooses for the TV cameras. There were counterdemonstrations by feminists and human rights supporters, not only in Bangladesh but all over the world.
Nasrin remained underground for six weeks, and the situation was very problematic. So many organizations were involved that coordination was difficult; the press was all over everything, and the cost of a mistake could be a person’s life. There were also issues of conflict of interest, since some of the human rights people involved were also journalists writing about her case. In arguments over strategy, the journalists, most of whom happened to be men, increasingly lined up on one side, urging ever more heat from the international press, while the rest of us, mainly women, wanted to hold back. Two guys, one Swedish and one French, actually declared they would go into Bangladesh and rescue Nasrin personally, despite her lawyers’ request that they do no such thing; one responded to my incredulous questions by saying, “Does a lawyer in Bangladesh know more than a European journalist?” Several of us concluded that there had to be a better way to do this kind of human rights work and, in the fall of 1994, founded the Women’s World Organization for Rights, Literature and Development (Women’s WORLD) to develop a more feminist approach to helping besieged women writers.
Taslima Nasrin remained in hiding until August 1994, when her lawyers, Dr. Kamal Hossain and Sarah Hossain, with background pressure from several states, reached an agreement with the Bangladeshi government. She was offered a visa to attend a conference in Stockholm, made a brief court appearance, was given bail and left immediately for Sweden, where she received political asylum. Although she has moved around quite a bit since then, she is unable to return to her own country. She tried in 1998, when her mother was dying of cancer, and was immediately greeted by the same mob scene she had fled in 1994, somewhat reduced in size but still virulent. Her father is now old and she would like to see him, but the same thing would undoubtedly happen again. In fact, in mid-October of this year, she was tried in absentia by a rural court in Gopalganj, about sixty miles from the capital, in a case brought by a local extremist leader; the magistrate found her guilty of offending religious sentiments and sentenced her to a year in jail should she return to Bangladesh. In addition, three of her books, including Meyebela and its sequel, are still banned in Bangladesh.
Meyebela, which has been excellently translated by Gopa Majumdar, is dedicated “to my mother, who suffered all her life,” and much of the book centers on Ma, who loves learning but whose father pulled her out of school at a young age and married her off to a poor student from the countryside whom he picked up in the street. Most of the marriages in this book are that arbitrary. Baba, a handsome man who is always criticizing Ma for being too skinny and too black, is a philanderer; in one memorable scene, Ma takes her young son by the hand and they walk across town to the home of Razia Begum, whose love notes she has found while doing Baba’s laundry. Razia Begum’s ancient husband is standing guard, but Ma gets past him, finds the two lovers in bed and drags her husband home. But his womanizing is a constant theme; frequently she finds him in bed with servants, whom she immediately attacks and sends out into the streets crying, with no job and no money.
Denied education and thwarted in love, Ma has nowhere left to turn but religion, and she does so with a vengeance, joining the cult of the holy man Amirullah, her sister’s husband, whose female devotees are so obsessed with getting into heaven through his agency that they fight over who will wash his feet, who will massage his legs and who will lick up his spittle. Ma drags her young daughter Taslima with her so that she too will be saved by hearing Amirullah describe what will happen to those who go to hell, to be racked by unbearable heat, stung by snakes and scorpions, and fed boiling water and pus. The child Taslima’s distaste for religion grows from such encounters:
I sat silently behind Ma, the prayer beads still in my hand. I was sorry to see her cry. Her whole body was racked with sobs. It surprised me greatly to see so many people crying in fear of being burned by a fire. It was exactly like frightening a child. Perhaps I ought to cry, too, just like the others. I waited for tears to gush, but my eyes remained completely dry. Having heard how Allah might roast people alive, He began to strike me as someone cruel and heartless.
Baba, a doctor, wants Taslima to study science, not religion. He wants all his children to study, setting them impossibly long hours with no time for play and beating them if they don’t do well. His wrath at those who fail him is terrible. When his son Chhotda drops out of high school to marry a Hindu girl, Baba and an uncle kidnap the boy and shackle him in the living room with heavy chains. Baba proceeds to beat him half to death, then locks him in his room without food or water until the boy is a walking corpse. When Chhotda will still not agree to leave his wife and go to college, Baba disowns him and throws him out of the house. Then he locks up his daughters, determined not to let anything romantic happen to them.
Baba and Ma fight like dogs over Taslima, one pushing study, the other religion. Terrified of her father, she loves her mother but is a born skeptic and has gone to school, where she learned the scientific method. She finds a Bengali adaptation of the Koran, meant for women, which says the sun moves around the earth. This was not what she learned in school. What the book says about women is even worse. “So, even Allah was not prepared to treat women equally? Was Allah no different from Getu’s father? He used to beat Getu’s mother because she did not obey his every command.” One day, while everyone in the neighborhood watched and did nothing to intervene, Getu’s father beat his wife nearly to death with a burning log because she didn’t put enough salt in his food. Then he divorced her by saying he gave her talaq three times. That was all he had to do, and Getu’s mother was left with nothing while he married a teenage girl the next week. Thus the thoughts of the child Taslima. In a culminating scene, she goes poking around in her mother’s holy books and finds them riddled with termites, because the house is damp and the books are never aired. She is infuriated by what she reads about the position of women.
Now that I knew, I did not wish to delve any deeper. I knew that it was useless to search for pearls or diamonds in a pot of shit…. I thought that the Koran was written by a greedy, selfish man like Uncle Sharaf, or the man who grabbed my breasts by the river. If the hadith was the words of Prophet Muhammad, then he was definitely like Getu’s father: nasty, cruel, an abuser, insane…. Even after I had put the book back, millions of termites remained deep inside me, silently eating away all the letters and words in my head, and who knows what else.
These words, are, of course, shocking and will be profoundly offensive to many. But Nasrin believes in being shocking, in throwing herself against the bars of culture rather than trying to dismantle them bit by bit. Her methods have been criticized by many people, including Muslim feminists who call her approach simplistic and say it is necessary to see Islam, and other religions, as historical and social constructs that have been modified in the past and can be again. They say she generalizes incorrectly about Islam from the variant she experienced in Bangladesh, and that anyway you can’t change culture by attacking it head on. But Nasrin is not convinced. As she said in a 2000 interview:
People often tell me it is a question of tactics…but I do not believe in tactics. I am not a diplomat or a politician, I just want to say whatever I believe in. That means abolishing religion…. Because religion and freedom of expression, religion and human rights, religion and women’s rights, religion and democracy, religion and freedom cannot coexist…. Using tactics takes too long; it will take too much time to establish secularism this way…. What I want is a revolution–for women’s freedom, for humanism, and to throw out unnecessary things like religion.
Such fervent anticlericalism sounds strange to me, like something out of the eighteenth century. But of course I live in Multiculture Central, where vehement atheism is likely to be criticized more on the grounds of tactlessness than of blasphemy. Nasrin thinks attacking religion will bring about a world change in consciousness. I have my doubts; perhaps the anger in Meyebela distracts me from its message. I keep wondering how much of this story can be reduced to the unresolved furies of a mistreated child.
And then, since I am American, I think of the blasphemy of Huckleberry Finn, who was taught that slavery is sanctioned by the Bible. Huck believes he is committing a deadly sin by helping his friend Jim, the runaway slave. He is actually writing a note to inform on Jim when he realizes that, even if it means he goes to hell, he can’t betray his friend. “All right, then, I’ll go to hell,” he says, in words that still resonate through the American school system, where Huckleberry Finn is taught in countless English classes–and, over a hundred years after it was written, is one of the most frequently censored books in the United States.
I believe Nasrin’s Meyebela will, like Huckleberry Finn, become a classic of controversy, hated, loved, banned, made a school text, removed from the schools and fought over as long as people read. But there is an important difference between the two books. Huckleberry Finn is a novel, and, though it has a first-person narrator, there is a clear distance between Huck, the character, a believer who will do what’s right even if it means he has to go to hell, and Twain, the secular-humanist author, who is using Huck to show the hypocrisy of religion. In Meyebela, there is no authorial stance distinct from that of the narrator; the voice is that of the young Taslima as she comes to hate religion and blame God for the cruelties of man. Because all the author’s stories, and all her conclusions, are told in the voice of an angry, rebellious, imaginative child, some may feel they are simplistic. But even those who long for more distance must recognize that Meyebela‘s bravery, vividness and groundbreaking subject matter make it a remarkable achievement, and one that will live.