Taslima Nasreen: A Roundup

The Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen, about whom I’ve written before, has become the center of controversy again following anti-Taslima riots in Calcutta over the past few days. Exactly why the riots focused on her is a bit of a mystery, since the incident is really inspired by a new violent incident at Nandigram (about which I’ve also written before). At any rate, some Muslim groups are also demanding that Nasreen’s Indian visa be canceled (she’s applied for Indian citizenship; her current visa expires in February 2008), and she seems to have yet again become a bit of a political football.

Since the riots, the Communist government of West Bengal apparently bundled her up in a Burqa (!) and got her out of the state, “for her own protection.” (She’s now in Delhi, after first being sent to Rajasthan, a state governed by the BJP.) The state government has also refused to issue a statement in defense of Taslima, fueling the claims of critics on both the left and right that the Left is pandering (yes, “pandering” again) to demands made by some members of the Muslim minority.

Mahashweta Devi’s statement sums up my own views quite well:

This is why at this critical juncture it is crucial to articulate a Left position that is simultaneously against forcible land acquisition in Nandigram and for the right of Taslima Nasreen to live, write and speak freely in India. (link)

Ritu Menon in the Indian Express gives a long list of outrages to freedom of artistic expression in India in recent years:

These days, one could be forgiven for thinking that the only people whose freedom of expression the state is willing to protect are those who resort to violence in the name of religion — Hindu, Muslim or Christian. (Let’s not forget what happened in progressive Kerala when Mary Roy tried to stage ‘Jesus Christ, Superstar’ at her school. Or when cinema halls screened The Da Vinci Code.) Indeed, not only does it protect their freedom of expression, it looks like it also protects their freedom to criminally assault and violate. Not a single perpetrator of such violence has been apprehended and punished in the last decade or more that has seen an alarming rise in such street or mob censorship. Not in the case of Deepa Mehta’s film; not in the attack on Ajeet Cour’s Academy of Fine Arts in Delhi; not in M.F. Husain’s case; not in the violation of the Bhandarkar Institute; not at MS University in Baroda; not in the assault on Taslima Nasreen in Hyderabad this August. I could list many, many more. (link)

I was unaware of some of those, in fact.In Dawn, Jawed Naqvi quotes a book on Nasrin, which compares her to the great rebel poet Nazrul Islam:

The foreword to the book, “Taslima Nasrin and the issue of feminism”, by the two Chowdhurys was written by Prof Zillur Rahman Siddiqui, the former vice-chancellor of Dhaka’s Jahangirnagar University. “To my mind, more important than Nasrin’s stature as a writer is her role as a rebel which makes her appear as a latter day Nazrul Islam,” he says.

“The rage and the fury turned against her by her irate critics reminds one of a similar onslaught directed against the rebel poet in the twenties. More than half a century separates the two, but the society, despite some advance of the status of women, has not changed much. The forces opposed to change and progress, far from yielding the ground, have still kept their fort secure against progress; have in fact gained in striking power. While Nazrul never had to flee his country, Nasrin was forced to do so.” (link)

Barkha Dutt plays up the irony of Taslima’s being asked (forced?) to put on a Burqa as she was escorted out of the state:

As ironies go, it probably doesn’t get any better than this. A panic-stricken Marxist government bundling up a feminist Muslim writer in the swathes of a protective black burqa and parceling her off to a state ruled by the BJP — a party that the Left would otherwise have you believe is full of religious bigots.

The veil on her head must have caused Taslima Nasreen almost as much discomfort as the goons hunting her down. She once famously took on the ‘freedom of choice’ school of India’s Muslim intelligentsia by writing that “covering a woman’s head means covering her brain and ensuring that it doesn’t work”. She’s always argued that whether or not Islam sanctifies the purdah is not the point. A shroud designed to throttle a woman’s sexuality, she says, must be stripped off irrespective. In a signed piece in the Outlook called ‘Let’s Burn the Burqa’, Nasreen took on liberal activists like Shabana Azmi (who has enraged enough mad mullahs herself to know exactly what it feels like) for playing too safe on the veil.(link)

Saugata Roy, in the Times of India, gives an insider perspective on the “Fall & Fall of Buddha” — which refers to the growing willingness of both the Chief Minister (Buddhadeb Bhattacharya) and the Communist Party in general, to compromise on basic principles. Roy mentions that in the 1980s, the CPI(M) did condemn Rajiv Gandhi’s overturning of the Supreme Court’s decision on Shah Bano.

The role reversal didn’t come in a day. It began the day when the CM banned Nasreen’s novel Dwikhandita on grounds that some of its passages (pg 49-50) contained some “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any group by insulting its religion or religious belief.” What’s worse is Buddha banned its printing at the behest of some city ‘intellectuals’ close to him. This was the first assault on a writer’s freedom in the post-Emergency period. Later, a division bench of the Calcutta High Court lifted the ban.

But the court order was not enough to repair the damage. The government move dug up old issues and left tongues wagging. Soon thereafter, Hindu fundamentalists questioned M F Hussain’s paintings on Saraswati. Some moved the court against Sunil Gangyopadhyay’s autobiographical novel Ardhek Jiban, where he recounted how his first sexual arousal was after he saw an exquisite Saraswati idol. All this while, the Marxist intellectuals kept mum lest they hurt religious sentiments. And when fundamentalists took the Taslima to the streets, they were at a loss. Or else, why should Left Front chairman Biman Bose lose his senses and say that Taslima should leave the state for the sake of peace? Or, senior CPM leaders like West Bengal Assembly Speaker Hashim Abdul Halim say that Taslima was becoming a threat to peace? Even worse, former police commissioner Prasun Mukherjee – now in the dog house for his alleged role in the Rizwanur death – went to Taslima’s Kolkata residence and put pressure on her to leave the state. This was before last week’s violence in Kolkata. But still, the timing is important. Mukherjee went to Taslima’s place when the government went on the back foot after the Nandigram carnage.

But the Marxists themselves? Perhaps unknown to himself, Buddha has been steadily losing his admirers. There was a time — just a few months ago, really — when not just the peasantry and workers but the Bengali middle class swore by him. Today leftist intellectuals like Sumit Sarkar, liberal activists like Medha Patkar are deadly opposed to him and his government. The Bengali middle class, for whom Buddha represented a modernizing force, is today deeply disappointed with him. One thing after another has added to the popular disenchantment. First, there was the government’s high-handed handling of Nandigram, then came the Rizwanur case in which the state apparatus seems to have been used and abused to thwart two young lovers, and now the government’s capitulation in the Taslima affair before Muslim fundamentalists. (no link to TOI; sorry)

And finally, Taslima Nasreen herself speaks, asking that her situation not be made into a political issue:

Taslima Nasreen is happy her plight has been highlighted, but the author-in-hiding says she does not want to become a victim of politics. She has been told that she could become an issue for the BJP against the Congress and the CPM in the Gujarat elections.

“I do not want any more twists to my tale of woes. Please do not give political colour to my plight. I do not want to be a victim of politics. And I do not want anybody to do politics with me,” an anguished Taslima told HT on Monday over the telephone. (link)

It’s a fair request — unfortunately, it’s already too late. Politics, one might say, has “been done.”

115 thoughts on “Taslima Nasreen: A Roundup

  1. External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee’s statement today on Nasreen in teh Lok Sabha:

    Following is the full text of the Suo moto Statement made in the Parliament today by the External Affairs Minister, Shri Pranab Mukherjee on ‘Stay of Ms. Taslima Nasreen in India’: “I rise to inform the House of the Government of India’s stand on an issue which has attracted considerable public attention in recent days. As Hon’ble members are aware, noted Bangladeshi writer Ms. Taslima Nasreen has been in India for some time. Throughout history, India has never refused shelter to those who have come and sought our protection. This civilizational heritage, which is now government policy, will continue, and India will provide shelter to Ms. Nasreen. Those who have been granted shelter here have always undertaken to eschew political activities in India or any actions which may harm India’s relations with friendly countries. It is also expected that the guests will refrain from activities and expressions that may hurt the sentiments of our people. While these guests are in India, the Union and the State Governments provide them protection. This policy will also apply in Ms. Taslima Nasreen’s case”.
  2. Pranab-da, nomoshkar, khoob bhalo boleichen, this is also the right time to make sure MF Husain returns !

  3. jews were a protected minority under muslim rule (nothing like the protection offered by the liberal democracies of today, but for those times) while chritians regimes in northern europe persecuted jews relentlessly.

    this is somewhat a simplification. jews have lived for generations in christian and muslim lands, so you have a big sample space. jews were forcibly converted within the past two centuries before zionism in both iran and yemen. the treatment of jews as a protected minority in a place like yemen was extremely marginal (e.g., kidnapping of jewish children to be raised as muslims, etc.). i think it is fair to say that over the past 1,500 years jews had an easier time in the muslim lands than the christian lands (where they were regularly expelled from domains) because of their codified status. but muslim anti-jewish sentiment predates zionism, though the form which was common in the 19th century was the same sort of prejudice and persecution which christians would have been subject to. the 20-21th century form is different because jews take center stage.

  4. Those who have been granted shelter here have always undertaken to eschew political activities in India or any actions which may harm India’s relations with friendly countries. It is also expected that the guests will refrain from activities and expressions that may hurt the sentiments of our people.

    the first sentence though iffy, can be somewhat justified. the second sentence is the reason why i would refuse to ever live in india (and many other “liberal” european countries where there are laws abridging freedom of speech) in the long term (though i understand why protections for freedom of speech is weak in india, especially when compared with the u.s.).

  5. i meant protections for freedom of speech are weak in india. also someone commented that india is more of a “mob” democracy than many other industrialized states (in fact it reminds one of the u.s. during the guilded age); this will reduce as india becomes more of a business run society (you will see a sharp decline in destruction of property then…but this will take a long time).

  6. Al_Chutiya_for_debauchery wrote Hirsi Ali in one of her genocidal moods: Reason: Don’t you mean defeating radical Islam? Hirsi Ali: No. Islam, period. Once it’s defeated, it can mutate into something peaceful. It’s very difficult to even talk about peace now. They’re not interested in peace.

    I guess if you went through genital mutilation (like what happened to Ayaan Hirsi Ali) you have a very different perspective of Islam:

    <i>Somali culture began to demand that Ayaan too become a submissive woman who scrubbed away her own personality and sexuality. When she was five years old, she was made “pure” by having her genitals hacked out with a knife. It was a simple process. Her grandmother and two of her friends pinned her down, pulled her legs apart, and knifed away her clitoris and labia. She remembers the sound even now – "like a butcher, snipping the fat off a piece of meat." The bleeding wound was sewn up, leaving a thick tissue of scarred flesh to form as her fleshy chastity belt. She could not walk for two weeks.</i>
    <i>Ayaan soon realised that in a culture so patriarchal it could not tolerate the existence of an unmaimed vagina, "I could never become an adult. I would always be a minor, my decisions made for me. But I wanted to become an individual, with a life of my own."

  7. this is somewhat a simplification… i think it is fair to say that over the past 1,500 years jews had an easier time in the muslim lands than the christian lands (where they were regularly expelled from domains) because of their codified status

    You are good at nitpicking, razib. you start with my comment being simplification and then you agree to what i am saying. this is not a simplification. I am talking about the recorded history between jews and muslims and for the most part, jews had a better time with muslims than christians, ie, up until 20th century. compare your examples of yemen and iran to the violent expulsions of 1492 spain & portugal, from england in 1200s, various crusades etc.. the 20th century conflict has a lot to do with israel palestinian issue than anything else. this is not the thread about jews vs muslims, so i would stop on this now.

  8. A gentle query to anyone who can clarify: – is the kind of clitoridectomy that Hirsi Ali underwent a specifically Islamic practice unambiguously sanctioned within the Quran or hadiths? I thought it was a ‘custom’ that pre-dated Islam and was continued even after the ‘tribes’ that practiced it were converted to Islam. While this is true of much that is passed on within revealed faiths – in this case, as far as I know, clitoridectomy is not universally practiced in every Islamic society, especially not as much in South Asian Islamic cultures, though male circumcision is. And while I would also guess that male circumcision started similarly as a ‘tribal practice’ – for whatever reason, it received new justification within codified Judaism and later Islam, and is practiced in both, including in South Asia. One piece of evidence supporting such a view – that this is a pre-Islamic practice – would be the fact that clitoridectomy is also practiced today in ‘tribal cultures’ that never were converted.

    If the overall view of clitoridectomy as a practice not sanctioned by Islam is true – then, while her outrage against clitoridectomy itself is justified, using that as a broad brush against Islam in general is questionable at best, though that does not by itself negate any other critique she might have regarding gender relations within Islam. But it also raises a more general point – to what extent are even those critiques applicable to Islam as Islam – and to what extent are they critiques of patriarchal societies in general?

  9. Re 108:

    I did look into this issue quite some time back. To the best of my recollection, clitoridectomy or other forms of FGM are not mentioned in the Quran. There are a couple of Hadiths which appear to be supportive of (or at least not opposed to) FGM, but these are considered to da’if (weak) and not shahih (strong) hadiths (for those who don’t know what I am talking about, hadiths are considered by Muslims to be statements or actions performed by Muhammad, as reported by his companions; shahih hadiths are those which are reported by several independent sources and thus are the ones which many Muslims put credence in, while da’if hadiths are those whose about whose provenance there are some doubts). The practice is outlawed among the Shiite branch of Islam. And I believe three of the four Islamic schools of jurisprudence are opposed to any form of FGM; the fourth allows slight trimming of the hood of the clitoris.

    Keep in mind that this is all from memory; I looked into this about a decade ago. But I’m inclined to believe that FGM is more a consequence of the local culture than the original religious tradition (though it can and has easily diffused to becoming a part of the local religious tradition) — note, for instance, that FGM was practiced among Ethiopian Jews while not being part of Judaism per se, or the persistence of FGM even among Christians in Ghana.

  10. Re 18 and 31:

    Speaking as yet another Bengali who read some of her work, her essays were not bad. In contrast, I found her fiction and autobiography to be well, not quite as good, filled as they were with inconsistent characterizations such as female protagonists switching instantaneously from victims to staunchly liberated women, or male characters switching from being portrayed as dimwits in one page to the gleeful embodiment of knowingly evil patriarchy in the next. She also has a tendency to take potshots at certain male acquaintances, in some cases other writers and artists, often using sex and their reported attraction to her as weapons. Now, given that her writing often celebrates pre-marital and extra-marital sex in women, I find her use of that same device to attempt to shame some of her male acquaintances a little tacky.

    That said, and while I think my (the Bangladeshi) government handled the case poorly, most moderate Bangladeshis are probably a little divided on how they feel about Taslima. I believe Tazeen Murshid does a fairly decent job of bringing this out in a paper presented in the Women’s Human Rights Net.

  11. Here’s the latest news re: Taslima Nasreen. Apparently she has decided to omit some controversial lines from her book and the Indian goverment has pledged to continue protecting her. But the question that comes to mind is, if she was willing to edit her work to appease the Indian government, what prevented her from doing the same so she could return to Bangladesh?

    However, noted painter Shuvaprassana said Ms Nasreen had compromised by withdrawing the lines.

    “This is a compromise that she has been forced into for the sake of getting refuge. But if she can drop two pages to get refuge in India, she can drop three pages and go back to Bangladesh,” he said.

    Here is the link to the article: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/7120473.stm