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"A Writer On Trial"
- Interview with Kerry O'Brien,
from ABC-TV's "Lateline" (1995).
Special thanks to Joe Stanley, editor and publisher of "The Atheist Newsletter" for transcribing this article.
Published in "The Atheist Newsletter" No. 53, July, 1995.
While she sits in self-imposed exile in Sweden the Bangladeshi government may sentence her to jail in absentia.
After months of procrastination the trial of the feminist writer Taslima Nasrin has begun in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka, but it has started without her.
The author fled the country last year after Muslim leaders put a fatwa on her for her criticism of the Koran and its influence on civil law which she says is savagely anti-women.
She's not the first writer to have incurred the wrath of the Muslim clerics. Award winning novelist Salman Rushdie has spent the past six years in hiding after Iranian clerics issued a fatwa against him for what they said was blasphemous comment in his book, "The Satanic Verses".
As well as the death threat against her, Taslima Nasrin also faces a formal government charge which carries a sentence of up to two years in jail.
She said the government only laid the charge after heavy pressure from Islamic fundamentalist politicians who have a wider agenda to push the country towards becoming an Islamic State.
Indeed, members of the powerful Jamaat-e-Islami Party have tabled a bill in parliament that would make blasphemy a capital offence.
In a moment Taslima Nasrin speaks to us from Stockholm. But first, Anne-Maria Nicholson looks at events that led to her exile to Sweden.
After months in hiding the banned feminist writer Taslima Nasrin came in from the cold. Braving the threat of death from her enemies, Taslima arrived at Dhaka's High Court last August to face her accusers. The charge,
"Outraging religious sentiment."
She was released on bail and, fearing for her life, slipped out of her homeland, Bangladesh, perhaps for ever.
Taslima's transformation from an unknown doctor, specialising in family planning, to a notorious writer with a price on her head, was not that surprising. She pushed the boundaries of religious tolerance in one of the world's poorest nations to the limit.
"I write against Islam and sharia law.
Our government uses Islam in their politics because of the vote,
so they are against me."
Although Bangladesh is not an Islamic state, the vast majority are Muslims.
Taslima's style was sure to provoke. Three times married and divorced, no children, financially independent and living alone, she was the antithesis of Bangladeshi womanhood.
Taslima had long been an irritant to Islamic groups.
Her novel "Shame" about the suffering of a minority Hindu family brought things to a head. The book, banned in her home country, was a best seller in neighbouring India. It was an interview in an Indian newspaper, "The Statesman", that brought down the full wrath of the religious establishment against her. In it the author was quoted as saying: "I'm not in favour of minor changes, it serves no purpose. The Koran should be revised thoroughly."
Islam's central belief is that the Koran is God's word and cannot be changed.
Although Taslima claimed she had been misquoted, the article, reprinted in Bangladesh, set off an extraordinary chain of violence. Tens of thousands of men have marched the streets of Dhaka calling for Taslima to be hanged. Several Muslim leaders declared fatwas - religious decrees calling for her death. And the powerful opposition party Jamaat-e-Islami has encouraged massed rallies to call on the government to introduce blasphemy as a capital offence.
On International Women's Day last year, Bangladeshi women took to the streets too, to defend her. It was a rare display of solidarity. Support for Taslima in a country where, surprisingly, both the prime minister and the leader of the opposition are women, has been tepid at best.
It is the low status of girls and women in Bangladesh which Taslima says has prompted her to continue to speak out. In the core rural villages, where most Bangladeshis live, the challenge for many women is just to stay alive. From adolescence they are virtually confined to the house as custom and local Islamic law dictates.
The trial of the writer recommenced in Dhaka this week and has become a battleground for intellectuals fighting for freedom of speech. They're also against any increase of Islamic influence in local politics.
Sarah Hussein says: "It is an extremely deliberate pre-planned campaign on very fascist lines. They are going to try to bring in the blasphemy law. Anybody who says anything which is not approved of by the Jamaat or by the Kooris, or by other people who are fundamentalist in belief, will be targeted as their victims."
Sarah Hussein is part of a team of lawyers arguing Taslima's case. She claims the Jamaat-e-Islami party is using their campaign against the author to promote a wider agenda. The party has launched numerous attacks on non-government organisations such as banks and AID agencies that have proliferated in Bangladesh.
Taslima Nasrin, although unrepentant in her stand, does not underestimate her opponents.
"They can kill me. They can do anything in the name of God."
The Bangladeshi constitution guarantees the fundamental rights of women including freedom of expression. But with the opposition parties boycotting parliament the government is concentrating on courting the hard line of the Islamic party just to stay in power. Those people who choose to test their rights may well be the casualties.
KERRY O'BRIEN: We're now joined by Taslima Nasrin from Stockholm...... Taslima Nasrin, how seriously are you treating your trial in Dhaka? And do you think that the Bangladeshi government really has the heart to see it through?
TASLIMA NASRIN: The Bangladeshi government has filed a case against me. I think it is serious because my lawyers wanted to dismiss the case but the government did not want that. I think they will prolong it and they will try to punish me.
In what circumstances will you return to Dhaka? Will you go for the trial in any circumstance?
I think they'll punish me with two years imprisonment. I don't think I should go back. Prison is not safe for me. Any fanatic prisoner or warder could kill me. Political murder is not rare in my country.
It must be a particularly bitter irony for you that you're being prosecuted by a government with a woman prime minister and in a country that even has a woman opposition leader.
Our opposition leader and prime minister did not gain power by their own credit but through bloodshed. Both the opposition leader's father and the prime minister's husband were killed by people sympathetic and they had no ideological commitment to improve the position of women.
You have said that your first encounter with injustice was as a young girl when your brothers were allowed to play outside the house but you had to stay inside. How much worse than that did it get for you as a young girl and a young woman growing up, and at what point was it that you decided to fight the system?
My parents said girls should stay at home to learn cooking, washing, cleaning the house and make the husband happy. As I grew up I saw much oppression of women by our society. Women are raped, tortured and killed by their husbands. I decided to protest against such inequalities and injustice, so I took up my pen against the social system and religion.
Has your campaign achieved anything? Has anything changed at all in Bangladesh?
Mainly, I wanted to make women conscious of their rights. They have been taught over centuries that their fatal destiny was to be the slaves of men. Many women have now become conscious of their rights. They have now started to study and get work outside their homes and become economically independent.
But haven't fundamentalists also used you as a call to arms, if you like, as a way to fire up resistance to the type of message that you give? Haven't your actions backfired to some degree?
Fundamentalists want to use me for political gain. What I have written is the truth. I don't believe in God. I'm an atheist, and I believe religion is totally against human rights and women's rights. I have a right to write the truth. Fundamentalists should not have rights to kill me for that reason.
But how would you feel if the fundamentalists in Bangladeshi politics win their fight to have blasphemy recognised as a capital offence? Won't that be, in part at least, because of your own actions? Aren't they using your actions to try to win that reform, if you could call it reform, in Bangladesh; to make blasphemy a capital offence?
I think they'll try to create another issue for capital punishment for blasphemy.
You say that the comment about Islamic law and the Koran sparked the fatwa against you and such outrage in Bangladesh and you have been misquoted by an Indian newspaper. What was the point that you were trying to make: What were you saying that was misquoted?
I said that Islamic law, sharia law, should be removed from society. We need civil law to give women total freedom and equality.
So you weren't saying at that point that the Koran should be rewritten, but a civil application of the Koran...
I don't need a revision of the Koran because I think the Koran is out of place, out of time.
In a way you were adding insult to injury to devout Muslims, were you not? You were saying more, the Koran should be re-written, you were saying the Koran was irrelevant and yet to devout Muslims the Koran is the word of God. So, in their eyes, you're still blaspheming. Weren't you?
If I believe that the Koran is out of place and out of time we should not believe that which was written one thousand four hundred years ago. The Koran is totally against women's rights, so why should I follow the Koran? I can reject it - it is my belief. If I hurt them, they also hurt me. I'm an atheist; I don't believe in God. They want to kill me.
You're on record as saying, and I think you have virtually said it again tonight, that all religion is bad; all religion should be banned. Even if you believe that great evil is sometimes being committed in the name of religion, that is not exactly a very tolerant attitude on your part, coming from somebody who is protesting against intolerance. Do you really combat intolerance with intolerance?
It is my belief that religion is against women's rights and women's freedom. In all societies women are oppressed by all religions. I do not want to kill people who believe in religion, but religious people want to kill me because I don't believe in God. I am not intolerant. I want to express myself. I have a right to express my ideas.
It's one thing to say, "I don't like religion"; it's another thing to say: "All religion should be banned".
All religion should be banned because, historically, religion makes war with lots of bloodshed; religion keeps women in slavery; its the cause of inequality and injustice. Religion keeps people in ignorance and allows the persecution of people of different faiths. So, if I reject religion and express myself, nobody should put a price on my head and kill me for my beliefs.
But to talk about something being banned is to suggest a form of suppression.
It is my suggestion.
I know you don't go so far as suggesting people should be killed for being religious, but nonetheless, to say that religion should be banned is in itself a form of suppression, a form of suppression of "freedom of speech". Surely freedom of speech is a fundamental human right!
I do not want to hurt or kill the people who are practising religion. I think that, at this moment, the state must be separate from religion. Society should not encourage religions. States should not encourage religion. In our country we need schools, colleges, universities and libraries because seventy per cent of our people are illiterate. There are lots of mosques but very few schools. The government, and other rich countries, encourages the building of mosques in poor countries. Because of this I should protest against it. The state must be secular and stop encouraging religion.
I know that you've been described as a female Salman Rushdie, and I know that you reject that description and that he does too. Rushdie has said that it is your enemies that have more in common than the two of you. What empathy do you feel with Salman Rushdie, what common ground?
Salman has criticised Islam and I also criticise Islam - that is the common ground. Christian people can criticise Christianity, Hindu people can criticise Hinduism, but Muslims are not allowed to criticise Islam.
How seriously are you now taking the fatwa against your life? You are moving around more freely than you were when you first came to Sweden, are you not?
I had police protection for nine months, but now I'm more free to go anywhere I want.
If you decide that you can't go back to Bangladesh, if the trial finds you guilty and they do impose a sentence and you then decide not to go back to Bangladesh, how will you live the rest of your life?
I will continue my writing and I will say what I believe until the last day of my life, in Bangladesh, in Europe, or wherever. I will never compromise with the fundamentalists. I will never stop my writing, even if I do go back to Bangladesh.
If you do stay in exile it would seem to me that that is a very lonely life for you to face.
Yes, that is true. But I have many friends that support me here in Europe.
And your family, they've suffered too?
Yes, I got support from my family. I miss my family members in Bangladesh and India. I miss my language and culture. I sacrifice myself because I want to do something for my society.
Taslima Nasrin, thanks very much for talking with us.