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Bangladeshi Writer Draws Death Threat

Woman's plight evokes shades of Rushdie in South Asia

SHE has been harassed at book fairs, inundated with hate mail, and labeled a ``practicing pornographer'' by the media. The government has banned her latest book and confiscated her passport. But these problems pale in comparison with Taslima Nasreen's more immediate concern: a death sentence issued by a group of extremist Muslims.

In October, the relatively obscure Council of Islamic Soldiers accused the Bangladeshi writer of blasphemy, and reportedly offered a 50,000 takka ($1,200) bounty. Nobody took the threat seriously until December, when 10,000 Islamists marched through the streets here demanding that Ms. Nasreen be hanged.

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Today, two armed police officers stand guard at Nasreen's apartment. The government provided the protection only after a court order. Nasreen has not gone into complete hiding, but her freedom is curtailed. ``I only leave my apartment for emergencies,'' she says nervously. ``It's dangerous for me to be seen outside.''

Nasreen, a physician by training, is the author of 15 books of poetry and prose - nearly all of which are controversial. Her latest novel, ``Lajja,'' caused the most outrage. The book depicts a Hindu family's torment at the hands of Muslims following the destruction of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya, India, in 1992. In its first six months in print, ``Lajja'' sold 50,000 copies - a remarkable number in Bangladesh. But last July, the government banned the book because ``it might create misunderstanding and mistrust among different communities living in exemplary harmony in Bangladesh.''

Ninety percent of Bangladesh's 120 million people are Muslim; the rest are Hindu, with a tiny percent Buddhist. Since gaining independence from Pakistan in 1971, Bangladesh has mostly avoided the Hindu-Muslim tension that has led to three wars in South Asia and still racks India.

While relatively few Bangladeshis support the fatwa, or religious decree, against Nasreen, many object to her stark portrayal of their country. ``What she has written is absolutely blasphemous, and she should be tried under the Blasphemy Laws,'' says Motiurs Rahman Nizami, head of Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh's largest Islamic party. ``She distorted the Koran and Islamic views in order to spread her baseless propaganda against Bangladesh.''

Bangladesh's Constitution cites Islam as the official religion, but most people here perceive their nation as relatively secular. In fact, both the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the largest opposition party, the Awami League, are secular.

Nasreen's writing has focused not only on the plight of minorities in Bangladesh, but also on the status of women. For instance, one of her poems chides the country's ``religious fanatic cowards'' for treating women ``like tasty morsels, offered up for amorous sport.'' She also has written graphically about subjects like adultery, which is rarely discussed here.

Her provocative style, perhaps more than her political views, has generated the harshest criticism. An English-language newspaper, the New Nation, accused her of ``slow-poisoning the moral and social fiber of Bangladesh.'' Like most news stories about Nasreen, it highlighted that at age 31 she has been married and divorced three times. She maintains that those who focus on her personal life are trying to deflect attention from her message.

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Supporters and critics alike have called her ``the female [Salman] Rushdie.'' Both writers hail from South Asia, have been accused of blasphemy, and live in fear. But their writing styles differ, and some critics here resent the comparison.

``I think it is safe to say [she] is no Salman Rushdie,'' says Abul Hassan Chowdhury, foreign minister of the Awami League. ``She's given more to sensationalism.''

Nasreen has become the most prominent author in Bangladesh and possibly the only one to gain international recognition. Her success has proved embarrassing for the government of Prime Minister Khalida Zia. Democratically elected in 1991, Ms. Zia's victory ended seven years of autocratic rule under Lt. Gen. Hussain Muhammad Ershad.

``We hoped that many of the Draconian measures, the black laws, would have disappeared with General Ershad,'' Mr. Chowdhury says. ``Unfortunately, many of them have remained on the books.''

Nasreen's harsh criticism of women's rights in Bangladesh also belies Zia's efforts to improve the plight of women here, officials say. Zia's government is reluctant to talk about Nasreen and discourages foreign journalists from pursuing the story. ``The whole incident has been blown out of proportion,'' an official statement says.

Bangladesh's small circle of writers has rallied behind Nasreen. But most of her support has come from overseas: About 8,000 American authors, including John Irving and Norman Mailer, have written to Zia, asking her to lift the ban on Nasreen's novel and return her passport.

Mr. Rushdie has, according to Nasreen, written several newspaper editorials in her defense. But he is arguably at greater risk. The Iranian government issued (and recently renewed) the fatwa against him for his book, ``The Satanic Verses,'' while Nasreen has been threatened by a relatively small group of extremists.

``But the risk is the same,'' she says, taking a break from work on her 16th book. ``It takes only one person to kill us.''

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