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She who makes holy men fume

A standard bearer for equality or a self-publicist employing fatwa as career move? Simon Targett meets the exiled Bangladeshifeminist writer Taslima Nasreen.

It was a hush-hush, mum's the word sort of interview, set up by an intermediary. The rendezvous arrangements read like the rules of an elaborate game of hide and seek: go to Oxford, ring the mobile phone number at ten o'clock on the dot, and wait for instructions. At the appointed hour, a deep-throated voice picked up the receiver and gave directions to the "safe house", a hotel on the outskirts of the city.

At the hotel the bearded deep-throat led the way along the narrow carpeted corridors to a tiny room, darkened by window voiles, half-drawn curtains and the constant presence of a bodyguard.

In the corner, sitting by the coffee table, was the carefully guarded secret: Taslima Nasreen, the exiled Bangladeshi writer who fled to Sweden last August after death threats from Islamic fundamentalists. She was elegantly dressed and was chain-smoking expensive Davidoffs. She also looked a little nervous, which is hardly surprising.

Life in the capital Dhaka had long been difficult, especially after her novel Lajja, which denounces fundamentalism and communalism (the South Asian term for violence between Hindus and Muslims), was banned for supposedly inciting unrest and "misunderstanding among the communities". It was then, in October 1993, that an obscure Islamic fundamentalist group, the Council of Islamic Soldiers, put a 100,000 taka (Pounds 1,700, but several times the average salary) price on her head.

But it was after she described the holy Koran as "out of place and out of time" in a letter last year to the Calcutta-based Statesman that life became quite intolerable. Muslim extremists protested, taking to the streets in their thousands, issuing "wanted" posters with her head in a noose and threatening to release 10,000 poisonous snakes to mark her infamy. The shaky Bangladeshi government, which had come to rely on fundamentalist support, charged her with "deliberately and maliciously outraging religious feeling" after reviving a long-dormant colonial statute originally designed by the British to maintain the peace between Hindus and Muslims but which now had all the hallmarks of a blasphemy law.

Nasreen was faced with two years' imprisonment and, to put it mildly, an uncertain future. In desperation, she faxed Amnesty International: "I am in grave danger. Fundamentalists are demanding my death. They have declared prize money for my head again. Situation is dangerous now. They could kill me at any moment. Please save me." Amnesty International answered her call, as did the international writers' group PEN and the Swedish government, which offered her asylum and the Pounds 15,000 Kurt Tucholsky Prize designed to help persecuted writers continue their work in exile.

She does not know when she will be able to return to Bangladesh, saying only that "in my blood, in my soul, Bangladesh is always present". Meanwhile she is writing her memoirs and travelling around Europe giving lectures. It was under the auspices of Amnesty International that she found herself in Oxford, preparing to present her paper in Amnesty's THES sponsored lecture series on dissidence and literature. "I was born free," she says at the beginning of her lecture "The Oppressed and the Oppressor", so echoing the first lines of Rousseau's Social Contract. At the end, she quotes from one of her poems: "If you are weak/you'll turn back/and if you're not/you'll keep going/as you're going now". This sense of liberty, and this defining two-fingered gesture of defiance, can be traced back to her childhood.

Nasreen says she was born twice: once in 1962, in the northern town of Mymensingh, then part of East Pakistan, and once again in 1971, when Bangladesh won independence after a fierce civil war. But this national freedom did not mean freedom for the nine-year-old Nasreen. "I was told girls should play with dolls. But I wanted to play cricket, football and other things in those vast fields." While her brothers played outside, Nasreen was kept inside, "forced to practise religion": reading the Koran in Arabic "even though I did not know the Arabic language". She disobeyed often and was "slapped" and "tortured" by her parents.

In her early teens, Nasreen began a campaign of silent protest. She turned to poetry, writing "about what I wanted to do but was unable to do because of society". She also turned to Rabindranath Tagore, who introduced her to another, more humanistic, world, where there was Hindu-Muslim unity, equality. But his books were not on the syllabus and "when my parents found those books they just took them away."

After school, Nasreen was sent to the Mymensingh Medical College, part of Dhaka University. Architecture or art would have been her choice, but her father chose for her, and medicine was seen as the best way of netting the most eligible bachelor. As Nasreen explains: "It is true that more women are becoming educated, but it is not for themselves, it is totally for a good marriage. " If medicine was not her choice, she nevertheless cherished the experience, particularly the years practising as a gynaecologist, which profoundly influenced her outlook. There, in what she calls "the labour room", she watched how countless pregnant women raised a despairing cry as they were told that they had given birth to a baby girl. "I think you can take a total picture of society in the labour room," she laments, "just from the cry."

She treated the whole subject of female oppression in her poetry, which she had by this time started to publish, and the evils of patriarchy were expressed in exceptionally explicit sexual language. In one poem, she depicts a man as a cockroach entering the vagina, in another she muses that "when a man is chasing/you, be warned/That man has syphilis", and in a third, "divorce letter", she writes that husbands "perceive no difference between the whore's and the lover's body".

These views received further exposure from 1989 in a regular column for the newspaper Ajker Kagoj. Top of her hit list was the Islamic sharia law, which gives legal foundation to the oppression of women. Her outspokenness won her huge popularity.

Nasreen next ventured into the relatively unfamiliar territory of the novel, dashing off a 70-page work in seven days. Lajja, later expanded and translated (not to her satisfaction) as Shame, is the story of a Hindu family persecuted by the Muslim majority as retribution for the Hindu destruction of the mosque Babri Masjid in the Indian city of Ayodhya in December 1992. In telling the tale, she demonstrated that she is a redoubtable defender of the downtrodden - not just women, but religious minorities as well. She herself is an atheist, even though she was born a Muslim and grew up in a Hindu-dominated community, and she does not think that "secularism needs any spirituality".

All the time she was gaining new friends - and enemies, and not only among the fundamentalist mullahs. Something of a liberal backlash has taken place as fellow Bangladeshi writers (mostly anonymously) have charged her with being haughty, man-eating (in a sexual sense), non-literary, self-promotionist and, perhaps worst of all, intellectually superficial. But most of these charges have little foundation. Only the first two really stand up.

She has unfairly dismissed feminist activists in Bangladesh as "housewives" and she has little to say about Sufia Kamal, the octogenerian queen of Bengali feminist activism. At the same time, she is reluctant to point to any living Bangladeshi feminist writers who have influenced her, managing only the late and little-known Begum Rokiya after some considerable prodding. On the other hand, she rattles off Simone de Beauvoir and Virginia Woolf when asked about western feminists.

She also, for all her vituperative remarks about men, seems passionately drawn to the opposite sex. At 32, she has been married (and divorced) three times, and the Bengali scholar Carolyne Wright recounts how women poets and journalists were often snubbed at literary gatherings as Nasreen chatted exclusively to male editors and writers. Nasreen dismisses questions about her personal relationships and about the apparent gap between principle and practice. "It's not important," she shrugs, waving her hand and wriggling uncomfortably in her chair.

Yet most of the carping, most of the cynicism, seems unjustified. Nasreen has been lambasted for the low literary quality of her work, especially when compared with that other Muslim dissident, Salman Rushdie. But this is wrongly to assume that Nareen privileges her literary ambition above all other. "I am nothing besides Salman Rushdie," she once said, and she deliberately describes Lajja as "a documentary novel" to distinguish it from the traditional form of imaginary fiction. "Many people have said that I destroyed the character of the novel. But I did not follow any model. I put in lots of facts and figures because I need to show that God is used in so many destructive ways." For Nasreen, the message, not the medium, is preeminent.

Another criticism is that the ever-provocative Nasreen has staged a rather rococco publicity stunt that has got a little out of hand. One American magazine even dared to call it "a smart career move". By way of evidence, it is pointed out that the death threats were never meant to be taken seriously, that many Bangladeshi intellectuals have chosen to ignore similar death threats against them. Nasreen denies the general point, stressing that "it is not my aim to be a celebrity".

She could also deny the particular point because she did not run away at the first death threat. She was in constant danger from 1990, yet she changed her mind only after the death threats were upgraded by a fatwa. And who can blame her? In the two months spent in hiding just before her flight to Stockholm "I could not speak, I could not turn on the light, I could not shower," she recalls. "I just had to lie like a piece of dead wood so no one would know I was there. I only moved at midnight, always under cover: from one house to another, from one shelter to another." In all, she moved to 15 locations, on average once every other night.

Perhaps the most hard-hitting accusation is that Nasreen has overstated her case, presenting the position of women in simplistic, black and white vocabulary. It is true that the prime minister and the opposition leader are women, that women are moving into the professions, and that large amounts of foreign aid is directed towards women. But women remain seriously disadvantaged, with, for instance, an abysmal literacy rate compared with men (22 per cent versus 47 per cent), and so the power of her personal crusade is not lessened.

And in the end, this is what Nasreen is all about: a standard bearer for absolute equality and justice rather than an advocate of insignificant niceties, she represents instinctive passionate conviction rather than polished pedantic hair-splitting. "I am a human being," she cries, after being questioned about her identity as a doctor, a feminist, an atheist and a God-knows-what. "I stand for humanism. Women are oppressed in our country, religious minorities and poor people are oppressed. So I stand for them, and I will defend them." For all her faults, the world needs human beings like Taslima Nasreen.

Additional research by Krishna Dutta.

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