Taslima Nasreen

February 3, 1995

Six leading writers will speak on the subject of the Dissident Word in the fourth series of Amnesty Lectures which starts next week at the Sheldonian Theatre at Oxford. I used to hear the chants of the fundamentalists outside on the streets - 'Kill Taslima! Kill Taslima!' I was sure they would find me and chop me into pieces."

The woman who spoke these words, reported by The New Yorker last year, is Taslima Nasreen, the Bangladeshi-born feminist writer who now lives in exile in Sweden. She has left her native country because of the hostile reaction to what she has written, including a court case against her and reportedly at least one fatwa pronouncement.

Although she says she does not like the label, almost inevitably Nasreen, who comes from a Muslim family, has been dubbed a "female Salman Rushdie". For her, the equivalent of Rushdie's The Satanic Verses was a short novel entitled Lajja (Shame). Hurriedly written and published early in 1993, it told the story of a Hindu family's increasing isolation during the communal rioting that followed similar disturbances in India. (Although it is a secular democracy, Bangladesh has declared its state religion to be Islam, the faith of about 90 per cent of the population; most of the remainder are Hindu.) The cause of India's Hindu-Muslim violence was the destruction of the Babri mosque at Ayodhya by Hindu fundamentalists in December 1992 .

"It has been very rare for a person from a majority community to write about the treatment of a minority," says Ranjani Ash, a London-based critic and lecturer on post-colonial literature. Lajja is, she thinks, "a tremendous expose - tragic and very moving".

The publication of that novel was not Nasreen's first offence in the eyes of Islamic activists. Born in 1962 in Mymensingh, she is a doctor by training which has enabled her to observe and write about the treatment of women in an Islamic society. She began her literary career by publishing poetry. In 1990, she arrived in Dakha to work in the gynaecological department of a hospital in a poor district of the capital, and began writing newspaper columns attacking religious intolerance and the oppression of women in the provinces. Fundamentalists were outraged. Bookshops that stocked her works were attacked.

Last year, some observers feel she made her position even more hazardous when, having given an interview to the Calcutta-based Daily Statesman in which she said "the Koran must be revised thoroughly", she then corrected herself in a subsequent letter to the newspaper to say that "I hold the Koran, the Veda, the Bible and all such religious texts determining the lives of their followers as out of place and out of time . . . We have to move beyond these ancient texts if we want to progress."

Certainly, Lajja has been widely circulated by Hindus in India as anti-Muslim propaganda. But Nasreen is a humanist who believes, in the words of her hero's father in Lajja, that "it is in the name of religion that there has been so much unrest and lack of peace". An opinion that, in a world where fundamentalism of all kinds is on the rise, requires courage - if not foolhardiness - to express.

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