An outspoken critic of Islamic attitudes toward women in her home country of Bangladesh, writer Taslima Nasrin (born 1962) has received death threats and been forced into exile in response to her writings. To escape what would have been a dangerous imprisonment and perhaps even the death penalty on charges of insulting Muslims, Nasrin left Bangladesh in 1994. She continued to defend her ideas vigorously in the face of continued threats; to ensure her physical safety, she was forced to move frequently.
Taslima Nasrin's writings have been controversial because they are unflinching in describing the oppression against women and religious minorities that is ongoing in her native Bangladesh. Most controversial of all has been Nasrin's memoir, Amar Meyebela: My Bengali Girlhood, which was published in seven installments between the late 1990s and the early 2010s. In this work, which was banned in Bangladesh, she details her experience of sexual abuse at the hands of an uncle and depicts, through her childhood eyes, the often-violent repression visited upon women in rural Bangladesh. These experiences led Nasrin to renounce Islam and to speak out forcefully in support of secular values and the role of civil society in the Muslim world. “For myself, I am not afraid of any challenge or threat to my life. I will continue to write and protest persecution and discrimination,” she wrote in the preface to Amar Meyebela. “I am convinced that the only way the fundamentalist forces can be stopped is if all of us who are secular and humanistic join together and fight their malignant influence. I, for one, will not be silenced.”
The observance of Islam she witnesses when accompanying her mother to services led by Amirullah repelled the young Nasrin. “Having heard how Allah might roast people alive, He began to strike me as someone cruel and heartless,” she would recall in her memoir. The violence she witnessed came not only from Islamic sources but also from local belief systems. The behavior of an aunt reacting to an unhappy marriage was attributed to the influence of a jinn or genie, and the solution adopted was to beat her until the jinn departed.
Nasrin's memories of sectarian violence covered not only the plight of minority Hindus during the formation of Bangladesh but also the specific experiences of her brother, Chhotda, who fell in love with a Hindu girl and was locked in a room and starved nearly to death as a consequence. When Nasrin was seven, she was raped by an uncle, and family members warned her not to tell anyone what had happened. Her cousin, although very religious, became pregnant, had an illegal abortion, and died from complications resulting from the operation. Nasrin also experienced the death of a close friend of her brother when he was shot during a riot.
Recognizing her potential, Nasrin's father pushed her to follow him into the medical profession, and she obediently applied herself to her studies. During high school, she edited a student literary magazine, and in 1975 literary periodicals began to accept the poems she submitted. She continued to write while a medical student, and by 1990 she had published three books of collected poetry.
After obtaining her medical degree in 1984, Nasrin worked in rural Bangladesh as a medical officer. She then moved to the large public hospitals in Mymensingh and then to the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka. In both cities, she saw firsthand the second-class medical treatment often given to women. She also became acutely aware of the frequency with which women were raped and beaten by their husbands and male relatives. It was during this period that Nasrin abandoned her Islamic faith and became an atheist. On her website, she proclaimed the message “Let humanism be the other name of religion.”
In 1989 Nasrin began writing newspaper columns on the subject of women's rights in Bangladesh. She gained a strong following among secularist Bangladeshi readers, and a 1991 collection of her writings, Selected Columns, became a best seller. Islamic fundamentalists, already angered by the sexual content of some of Nasrin's poetry, now erupted in rage and she was attacked while promoting her books at Bangladesh's national book fair.
In the following years, Nasrin continued writing and attracting new readers. In the Indian state of West Bengal, where her Bengali language was spoken, she received the prestigious Ananda literary prize. Emboldened, the young woman set to work on the novel that would be published as Lajja (“Shame”). (Indian novelist Salman Rushdie, who had famously been forced into hiding by Islamic fundamentalists during the 1990s, had also produced a book of the same title, but Nasrin claimed no awareness of this work.) In Lajja she depicted the violence directed against minority Hindus in Bangladesh after Hindu mobs in India destroyed a prominent Islamic religious site in 1992.
The Bangladeshi government, fearful of incurring the wrath of the country's large Islamic political parties, banned Lajja, but the move did not quell the growing controversy swirling around Nasrin's writing. Even as the novel was released in Europe (appearing in 1994 in English) and became a best-seller in India, fundamentalists in Bangladesh demanded her execution and staged large street demonstrations. After Nasrin reportedly stated that the Quran, Islam's holy book, should be amended to conform to modern times, a warrant was issued for her arrest. She was charged with violating a provision of the country's penal code, according to Meredith Tax in the Nation, by prohibiting “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage the religious feelings of any class of citizens by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.” Nasrin claimed that she had been misquoted and was, in fact, discussing Islamic sharia law; on June 5, 1994, she went into hiding rather than take the dangerous step of being jailed and possibly facing the death penalty.
Wearing a traditional Muslim veil to hide her identity, Nasrin boarded a plane to Stockholm, Sweden. She moved from Stockholm to Germany, the United States, and France over the next few years, taking steps to conceal her exact location. In 1997 she issued the first part of Amar Meyebela, and this reignited calls for her arrest. When she returned to Bangladesh during her mother's illness the following year, demands for her imprisonment and death compelled her to leave her homeland once again. While dividing her time between Sweden and Bengali-speaking Kolkata, India, she began to face criticism from Indian Muslims as well, and her request to be allowed to visit her dying father in Bangladesh was refused by the Indian government. In 2002, the first volume of Amar Meyebela was published in English translation.
Nasrin had no desire to live permanently in the West and felt most comfortable writing and speaking in her native Bengali. She chose to live in India until she was attacked—but not harmed—by Muslim protestors at a book fair in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu in 2007. Nasrin now found her movements restricted to the capital of New Delhi by the Indian government. In March of 2008, suffering from health problems, she entered a second exile, flying from New Delhi to Paris. Her website posted of her new situation that “the real tragedy is that two countries which give her the oxygen of language [Pakistan and India] have cut her off. It's not the geography alone, but the languagescape also. That's the real crime … a fish being made to live on land. She does not have home. She is homeless everywhere.”
In contrast to her experiences in primarily Muslim cultures, Nasrin found strong support among Western authors allied in freedom-of-speech organizations. She received several major awards, among them the Sakharov Prize bestowed by the European Parliament, a UNESCO prize for promoting tolerance and nonviolence, and honorary doctorates from several European universities. Nasrin has continued to write fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, in 2006 producing a volume of poems centered on her desire to return to Bangladesh.
Nasrin's works have faced criticism, not only from Islamic fundamentalists but from some moderates who shun her confrontational approach; some Pakistani feminists have been able to speak out without provoking calls for their deaths. Still, many reviewers praised the precise narrative in Amar Meyebela citing as its main strength the manner in which Nasrin accurately represented the perceptions of a child. As Tax predicted in her Nation article, “Nasrin's Meyebela will, like [Mark Twain's] Huckleberry Finn, become a classic of controversy, hated, loved, banned, made a school text, removed from the schools and fought over as long as people read.”
Nasrin's more recent works, although avoiding overtly religious themes, have been banned in both Bangladesh and India, although many have been published in English and other translations. In demand as a speaker on human rights, she moved to the United States in 2015 in response to threats against her life from the al-Qaida terrorist organization. Active on social media, she took pains not to disclose her exact whereabouts on her website or Facebook page. During a 2017 visit to India, she once again found her movements restricted as a result of protests against her that authorities considered threats to public order.
Nasrin, Taslima, Amar Meyebela: My Bengali Girlhood, Steelforth, 2002.
Economist, June 18, 1994, “Fatwas for a Feminist: Bangladesh,” p. 40.
Globe & Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), September 22, 1995, Val Ross, “Rage Fuels Fugitive Writer's Work,” p. D12; October 5, 2002, Christina Mairin, “Amar Meyebela: My Bengali Girlhood,” p. 1.
Indian Express (New Delhi, India), July 31, 2017, “Amid Protest, Taslima Nasrin Sent Back from Aurangabad Airport.”
Nation, November 18, 2002, Meredith Tax, “Taslima's Pilgrimage,” p. 34.
Le Monde Diplomatique, https://mondediplo.com/outsidein/women-s-untold-stories (November 3, 2017), Michael Deibert, “Women's Untold Stores.”
Taslima Nasrin Official Website, https://www.taslimanasrin.com (November 3, 2017).□