‘I Am No Religious Expert, But I Can’t Tolerate Inhumanity In The Name Of Religion’: Tasleema Nasreen


 

Before she publicly announced that she was withdrawing the controversial lines from her impugned book, the fiery Bangladeshi writer spoke her mind out in a sealed wing of Rajasthan House in Delhi.

SHEELA REDDY

Five days on the run have done little to persuade the fiery Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen out of speaking her mind to Sheela Reddy in a sealed wing of Rajasthan House in Delhi. Some excerpts:

You have been a writer who has courted controversy even before Lajja was published. What made you take on the fundamentalist Islamists head on?

I was a newspaper columnist writing on women’s issues. Whenever the fundamentalists didn’t like what I wrote, they showed their anger. I got a lot of support and my writing was very popular. Readers liked the way I wrote, maybe because what I wrote shook them up. But the fundamentalists were much more angry with me because I wrote about women. Because when I wrote about women’s rights, I also wrote against the fundamentalists. Women’s rights and fundamentalism can’t go together; the latter are against liberal thought and equality.

What is it like, living in exile, living mentally out of a suitcase, for 13 years?

I had to live in exile from 1994 onwards. When my father was ill, I wanted to return to my country, but I wasn’t allowed. I wasn’t allowed to come to India even, from 1994-99. I lived abroad for six years. That felt like exile…more like a foster home. I visited almost all the European cities, but I never felt mentally at home anywhere. Then I started coming to West Bengal as a tourist. I had friends there, I used to come almost every year. In 2004, I was given a resident’s permit, renewable every six months. Now I just love to be in Calcutta, to be in my own home. It’s the only home I’ve had since I left Bangladesh. I had to fight for my own home in Bangladesh. And just when I did manage to get a home for myself in Dhaka, when I decorated it and moved in, I could live in it only for a few months. Then I had to leave. Now I have a home, and it is in Calcutta.

But don’t you think you were better off abroad—at least you could speak your mind without fear of your life.

I was an outsider there. But wherever I go in India, I look like an Indian—a Bengali, a Rajasthani, a Malayali, I look like everyone else. I feel at home. What I am realising now is that it’s no different here from Bangladesh. But I know whatever is happening is political because I am sure that those people who burnt those trucks and shops in Calcutta have never read my books. I am sure they were told I was against Islam. This is a total lie and it’s political.

You are not against Islam?

Women do suffer because of religious laws as well as customs and cultural traditions. My intention is not political, or to hurt anybody’s feelings, religious or otherwise, but to stand up for human rights and secular humanism. I believe in democracy and freedom of expression.

But freedom of expression at what cost? Does it give you the right to hurt religious sentiments?

True, I don’t have religious sentiments. But when the West Bengal government banned the third volume of my autobiography, Dwikhandito, it wasn’t because Muslims were angry with the book. No Muslim had demanded the ban. The state government’s argument was that something might happen. So if you ban a book because some problem might happen, then the problem happens after that. If the book had not been banned, I don’t think anything untoward would have happened.

That book was banned in 2003, why the problem now?

Because they couldn’t find anything else. I didn’t write anything about Islam. Nothing. So they found one line in the book I wrote four years ago. Actually, the people who demonstrated on the streets didn’t know what book I wrote, hadn’t read anything I’ve written. Some religious leaders exploited their ignorance because they need to win votes.Islam is being used politically.

It is a fact of life, isn’t it, when you choose to write about a subject such as religion, you are going to raise hackles?

I did not choose to write about religion or religious politics. I think I’ve written very little about religious traditions under fundamentalism. Most of my books are about women and women’s rights. If you go through all of them, you’ll find no more than a few pages where I comment on religious laws or traditions. My subject is human rights. If human rights are violated in the name of religion, then I have to write about religion. My subject is not religion; I am not a religious expert. But if I see a woman is being beaten to death because she had relations with a man, and some mullah decided it was un-Islamic, then I won’t remain silent. I can’t tolerate inhuman behaviour in the name of any religion.

Why then do you have Muslims gunning for you?

If anyone else had written about religion, they could have said much more and nothing would have happened. Because they have already branded me as anti-Islam, they attack me even if I don’t open my mouth. I am a victim of this politics. Even if I don’t ever mention the word religion or Islam, they will still try to kill me because they want to gain popularity. I am now a pawn in their political game. I never imagined that what happened in Bangladesh could happen in a secular democracy. I thought something like this could happen in countries like Saudi Arabia or Iran, but not in India. I thought I could live peacefully here because this is a secular country with so many languages and religions. It came as a huge shock, especially because I never imagined it could happen in this part of Bengal, which is so liberal. I always say I will fight for my right to go back to Bangladesh, but I don’t think I would like to live there, because I feel more at home with the culture and literature of West Bengal.

What do you feel about the fatwa against you?

After what happened in Hyderabad, there was a fatwa against me. The way they issued a fatwa against me was not just illegal in a democracy, but even under Islam; not anyone can issue a fatwa like they did. But they were not punished or arrested. There have been fatwas against me, a price on my head, since 1993. This is my life. I don’t blame those who want to kill me—they don’t have a secular education, they are only schooled in blind faith. They think that if they kill me, they’ll get some money and go to heaven.

You say you are a victim, but you seem to enjoy taking on the fundamentalists. Why?

Maybe some people like to compromise, but I think that if something is true, why should I be silent? It’s good for society and women’s liberty, so why shouldn’t I speak? If what I write annoys you, then we can have debate or dialogue. But I don’t want you to kill me.

But you know very well that your opponents are not rational, and yet you took the risk of being labelled as anti-Islam.

It’s a label they gave me; it’s not a label I chose. I have no wish to be anti-Islam, I hate that label. I am not anti-Islam.

You may be stuck with an anti-Islam label, but isn’t that what has brought you fame?

There are always people who will say that I invited the label to attract attention, but I know what I have faced, the trauma I am going through.

Didn’t you try to set up a secular organisation for Muslims in Calcutta recently?

Yes, educated and conscious Muslims got together to start an organisation against fundamentalism. Muslim fundamentalists are considered to be representatives of the Muslim community. But there are many educated Muslims who believe in democracy, and they should be considered the representatives instead.There are already 200 members, and more want to join. I heard they all stood on the streets of Calcutta holding placards saying, “We want Taslima back.”


Update: added by outlookindia.com: After we had gone to press, came this public statement from Taslima:

“I am withdrawing controversial lines in Dwikhandita, written in 2002 with the memory of Bangladesh in the 1980s when military threw out secularism in the country. I wrote the book in support of the people who defended secular values. I had no intention to hurt anybody’s sentiment. Now since some people in India claim that it hurt their sentiments, I am withdrawing some lines in the book. I hope that from now on, there would be no controversy and I’ll be able to live peacefully in this country. I have already asked the publisher of the book, People’s Book Society, not to circulate copies of the book which are in their possession. I have asked my publisher to bring out the next edition of the book deleting those controversial lines (about Prophet Mohammed)”.

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