Nasrin Memoir Confronts Taboo

Bangladeshi author discusses ban on new volume of her work

Taslima Nasrin, the Bangladeshi author whose sexually frank memoir of the literary life has ignited controversy, litigation and bitter condemnations from conservative clerics and former friends alike, realizes that her situation is a bit unusual.

“If one person is not allowed to live in her country, and is not allowed to go back to her country, and hundred of thousands of people want her dead, maybe it’s not the normal life,” Nasrin says before laughing a little at the understatement. She speaks in a soft voice hardly suiting a figure who has drawn so much anger and protest.

Nasrin is trying to explain why she began writing her autobiography, the third volume of which was published recently in her native Bengali language.

The book, Ka (Speak Up), was soon banned in both Bangladesh and the Indian province of West Bengali, and its unflinching treatment of taboo issues—especially women’s sexuality—angered many prominent Bangladeshi writers, government officials and Muslim fundamentalists.

A former friend, the nationally-famous Bengali poet Syed Shamsul Huq, sued Nasrin last month for $1.7 million on charges of defamation related to the autobiography.

“This time I was very surprised,” Nasrin says of the reaction to her latest work. “I could never imagine these progressive, secular writers would try to shut me up. This is a very new thing. Normally those writers are supposed to fight for the freedom of expression, fight against any kind of banning against a book.”

But Nasrin insists that she harbors no hard feelings for friends who suddenly, in her words, “became my enemies.”

“I’m not angry,” she says. “It’s just now that I know it much more clearly, that although they are writers and intellectuals, they are big people of the patriarchal system. They have been enjoying the system, and they wear the mask of the system. They of course believe that women shouldn’t talk about sex. The women aren’t to break any rules, or they feel threatened.”

Nasrin mixes her personal experiences with political theory fluidly and often, perhaps as a way to explain her eventful—and sometimes heartbreaking—life.

Nasrin is currently a fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights at the Kennedy School of Government, where she is working on a project focused on the secularization of Islamic countries. She said that the project would focus on “secularization of education, a uniform civil code, and equality...for women.”

Unlike other scholars working in the area, Nasrin firmly insists that her research would lead to policy that brings change from within Islamic countries, through joint ventures of women’s rights organizations, secular rights movements and other organizations with similar goals.

Michelle Greene, the executive director for the Carr Center, says Nasrin was chosen as a fellow for 2003-2004 “in part because of the Center’s interest in working on issues relating to Islam, democracy, and human rights.”

And while Greene says Nasrin has been “an active participant” in the Center fellows’ wide range of colloquia and other events, Ka has not been a part of those activities.

“Taslima’s work on the book was entirely independent of her research here at the Center,” Greene says.

In her literary career, Nasrin has been as prolific as she has been controversial. Nasrin began as a poet, but first attracted serious negative attention with the publication of Lajja (Shame), a book she says is about “the Hindu persecution in Bangladesh by the Muslim fundamentalists.”

The book so enraged Muslim fundamentalists that they issued a fatwa, or a religious death order, for Nasrin. Laija brought hundreds of thousands of protesters to the streets of Dhaka and other cities of the world, and soon forced Nasrin to go into hiding for fear of going to jail.

She defends the book, however, saying that she “criticized mainly the government who didn’t protect the minority, which was the Hindu community.”

Nasrin maintains that she did not “criticize Muslim or any other religion.”

Nasrin also says that when she writes, she has little time to think about the consequences of her writing.

“No, I don’t think of anything of what might happen when I write a book,” she says. “When I write I think of writing the truth, that’s the only thing in my mind, I don’t think of anything else. I wrote the truth so the fundamentalists wanted my execution, and the government filed a case against me. Only because I told the truth.”

As unaffected as Nasrin seems by the protests her work has drawn, she admits that the fatwa scared her.

“I thought that it cannot happen, that it’s not real, that it’s false news,” she says. “But slowly I realized that it was a really, really big thing. The demonstrations and processions started all over the world, and it was really dangerous. So I had to go into hiding, especially after the government filed a case against me in 1994 on the charge of hurting religious feelings of the people. People could kill me at any time. It’s a very sensitive issue.”

For Nasrin, writing the truth is a very important issue, one that is central to her efforts at documenting her life in her autobiography.

“It’s a very, very honest autobiography and I am not hiding any truth,” she says of the project. “Normally when people write autobiography they don’t write about everything. But I have written about what good I have done, what bad I have done, everything. I am not ashamed to describe my cost; I am a human being. I did bad things, I repented, I did good things, I did excellent things.”

The main issue that angered people, Nasrin explains, was her openness regarding the taboo of sex.

“Normally no woman talks about this, about sex issues,” she says. “Women shouldn’t speak about this and this and this. I wrote about how I was treated by my husband, I wrote about being sexually assaulted by some of the writers. It’s just human life.”

Ka, however, has attracted specific controversy from many of Nasrin’s formerly close friends.

“In this autobiography [Ka], this time the people whom I talked about in relation to me were real people, which is where the trouble started,” Nasrin says. “They are real people, they are my friends, and they don’t like that I am telling the truth.”

In particular, she was disappointed by the suit brought against her by Huq.

“A libel suit brought by another writer, who asked [the courts] to ban the book,” Nasrin reflects. “He even asked for my death sentence by hanging. This is the kind of freedom of speech in our country.”