When Governments Gag Writers
Anam, Tahmima, New Statesman (1996)
Taslima Nasreen is in trouble again. The Bangladeshi novelist, essayist and poet, best known for her 1993 novel Lajja and the resultant fatwa issued against her, was recently attacked by audience members at a book launch in Hyderabad, India. The social and political fracas that has ensued has had myriad twists and turns, from Nasreen herself being accused of inciting religious hatred, to those responsible putting a price on her head.
The row over Nasreen asks us pressing questions about the responsibilities of writers and social commentators.
Like many progressive Bangladeshis, I have had mixed feelings about Nasreen. I cringed when, in the wake of the fatwa, the western media dubbed her the "best Bengali writer since Rabindranath Tagore" or "the female Salman Rushdie". Rather than resisting these overblown comparisons, Nasreen has seemingly preferred the role of diva to that of social critic. Her politics appear to stem almost entirely from a sense of her own victim-hood. Thus, because she was the victim of religious hatred, she hates religion. She was exiled from Bangladesh, and therefore claims there is no freedom of expression in Bangladesh. She is a feminist, and therefore argues that there is no effective feminist movement in Bangladesh and that it is simply a country in which "murders are rampant, women are being raped ... [and] are committing suicide".
As a Bangladeshi citizen, as an activist and as a feminist, I have real stakes in resisting Nasreen's trite and reactionary politics. She argues for the complete abolition of religion--Islam in particular--without recognising the historical and social importance of faith, or the risks she takes in adopting a stance that can easily be adopted by anti-Islamic rhetoric the world over. We know that this sort of stereotyping has grave consequences in the current global political climate. Her views on Bangladeshi society are ahistorical and do nothing to index the struggles of the feminist movement, which has campaigned for more than three decades to challenge social and legal strictures on freedoms for women.
Because her books have been banned in Bangladesh, she refuses to acknowledge the valiant struggle against censorship that has been waged by journalists, writers and academics. …