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.