One Brave Woman vs. Religious Fundamentalism: An Interview with Taslima Nasrin
Cherry, Matt, Smith, Warren Allen, Free Inquiry
The following interview was conducted by Matt Cherry and Warren Allen Smith in the months before Taslima Nasrin's return to Bangladesh. - EDs.
FREE INQUIRY: Tell us something of your background.
TASLIMA NASRIN: I was born into a middle-class Muslim family in a small town called Myonenningh in a northern part of Bangladesh in 1962. My father was a physician, my mother a housewife. I have two elder brothers and one younger sister. All of them received a liberal education in schools and colleges. I studied in a medical college and qualified myself as a medical graduate.
FI: When did you start writing?
NASRIN: I have been writing poetry since 1975. My first poetry book was published in 1986. Since 1989 1 have written columns in daily newspapers and periodicals as well. I wrote about women who were being unfairly oppressed and other such subjects. I got support from liberal and secular people and hatred from fundamentalists and conservatives for my articles.
FI: Could you describe the fundamentalist reaction to your writings in more detail?
NASRIN: The Muslim fundamentalists filed several cases against me in court. They attacked me physically. They demanded my execution by hanging. They declared me an apostate and made frequent demonstrations against me. They broke into newspaper offices where I had written columns and filed cases against my editors and publishers. They demanded the banning of all my books.
Because the fundamentalists are so powerful, the Bengali government banned one of my books and filed a criminal case against me on charges of hurting the religious feelings of the people. In 1994 when the arrest warrant was issued against me I went into hiding because prison was not safe for me. Political murder is not rare in Bangladesh prisons.
FI: Was your life in danger?
NASRIN: Yes. They called a general strike all over the country for several days to protest my writings. No political party came to my support except one or two small leftist parties. People are afraid of fundamentalists because they can kill people whenever they want in Bangladesh. The fundamentalists came together and made demonstrations of over 300,000 religious people and openly announced that they must kill me.
In desperation I had to leave my country with the help of some democratic governments of Europe and the United States, the international literary organization PEN, and women's and humanist organizations.
FI: Do you still have police protection?
NASRIN: Mainly when I speak to large groups. At Nottingham in England, Islamic students attacked me. At Concordia in Canada I had to stop speaking because of Muslim demonstrations. Police were on hand when I spoke at Michigan and at Harvard. Hundreds of French gendarmes have been on duty when I spoke. When I first was hiding in Sweden, as many as a hundred policemen and policewomen were my guards. Once, when I slipped out of my apartment and bought flowers from some Bengalis, I was scolded and told never to do that again.
FI: Tell us about some of your other experiences in hiding.
NASRIN: Well, at one point PEN arranged a peaceful place near the Gulf of Bothnia for me. A great place for privacy and writing! I had a wonderful neighbor, an English lady with many cats, who helped with my pronunciation of English words. But one night when the wind rose and branches touched my roof, I became really alarmed. The police, who had been positioned in a house nearby, were quick to come. One of the policewomen, in fact, kindly spent the night. Only if you have a fatwa on your head and are alone far from home could you possibly understand what I was feeling.
FI: What originally prompted you to become so outspoken in your opposition to Islam?
NASRIN: When I began to study the Koran, the holy book of Islam, I found many unreasonable ideas. The women in the Koran were treated as slaves. …