Eight years after she was hounded out of her native land of Bangladesh, poetess, writer and columnist Taslima Nasreen continues to be in "exile" in Sweden. Religious fundamentalists back home accuse her of "blaspheming Islam and the Prophet and conspiring against the religion and the country". They have even put a price of 50,000 taka on her head. Two cases are pending against her in Bangladeshi courts. Her attempts to return home have been thwarted, including a latest one, to visit her aged father. However, she remains unbent. She says: "Life in exile is not easy. But I will not give up what I have stood for. It is my dream to go back to my country. I will keep trying till I succeed."
While working as a gynaecologist in a government hospital in 1990, Taslima started writing columns in some Bangladeshi weeklies, mainly against oppression of women by a male-dominated society. The topics of her columns - man's sexual domination, oppression of women in Muslim societies and the historical subjugation of women under Islamic law - angered various religious groups. Several writers had discussed such subjects earlier, but, according to Taslima's critics, it was her "aggressive" style that angered the orthodoxy.
In 1992, Taslima won the Suresh Chandra Smiriti Ananda Puraskar, a literary prize instituted by the Kolkata-based Ananda Bazaar Patrika group of publications, for her "Nirbachitha" column articles brought out as a compilation. The award brought fame to Taslima in the Bengali-speaking world and trouble to the Ananda Bazaar Patrika group from fundamentalists taking umbrage against it.
Taslima's literary contributions comprise six anthologies of poems, three compilations of columns, six novelettes and two other books, all chronicles of gender battles which became instant best-sellers.
The book Lajja, published in 1993, attracted criticism not only from fundamentalists but also from a section of writers. The latter group considered her literary capabilities overrated and and alleged that her writing was irresponsible and had the potential to create communal tensions. There were writers who sympathised with Taslima but most writers preferred to remain silent. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party government of Khaleda Zia banned Lajja seven months after its publication.
With the Sylhet-based "Council of Soldiers of Islam" issuing a fatwa against her, Taslima remained under virtual house arrest in Dhaka in a well-guarded Dhaka apartment. In June 1994 she managed to flee to Sweden. She returned to Bangladesh once, in 1998, to see her ailing mother; a non-bailable arrest warrant was issued against her on that occasion. She was granted bail on condition that she leave the country.
Ironically, in the years when Taslima has been in exile, Bangladesh has been ruled by two women Prime Ministers, Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina, but neither appears to have been sympathetic to her plight.
All this would have shattered any other person, but not Taslima. She has kept herself busy writing and meeting the media. She has just published French Lover, which narrates a Bengali woman's odyssey from Kolkata to Paris, where she escapes oppression and discovers herself.
In an e-mail interview to Asha Krishnakumar, Taslima Nasreen discusses her latest unsuccessful attempt to return to Bangladesh, her main critics, her works, her support group, the influences that shaped her ideas, and her life in exile. Excerpts:Why do you want to go to Bangladesh now?
I have always wanted to go back to my country. People think I am living in exile voluntarily. What is voluntary exile? I was simply hounded out of the country in 1994. At that time I never imagined that I would be outside my country for so long. I thought it would be just for a month or two. It is now eight years and I am still struggling to get back home.
You have been trying since September 2001 to go to Bangladesh to meet your father either by renewing your Bangladeshi passport (in Sweden and in the U.S.) or by obtaining a visa on your Swedish passport. What has been your experience?
No Bangladeshi embassy - in Sweden or in the U.S. - wants to renew my passport. In 1998, in spite of my Bangladeshi passport being still valid and the authority there threatening to put me in jail, I attempted to go to Bangladesh. I entered the country as T. Nazrin. But I was harassed. A criminal case was filed against me and a non-bailable arrest warrant issued. I was forced to leave the country again as bail was granted on condition that I would leave. My rights as a citizen continue to be violated silently.
Now, since last September, I have been trying to go to Bangladesh to see my father. I sought a visa on the basis of my Swedish passport. The request was refused. Then I tried to renew my Bangladeshi passport. This was also refused and no reason given. In October I sent my passport to the Bangladeshi Consulate in New York for renewal. The clerk put the seal of approval on it. But when the Consul noticed my name, he wrote "cancelled" on the seal. When I called to find out why, I was given no answer. Since then I am stuck here (in Sweden).What are the main accusations against you?
In 1994, accusing me of showing disrespect to the Koran and religious sentiments, fundamentalists started a campaign against me and demanded my execution by hanging. This happened again in 1998 when I returned to Bangladesh to see my mother.
The fundamentalists claim that I hurt their religious feelings by saying that the Koran is out of place and out of time. They claim that I offended them by writing books in which I asked not for any change in the Koranic law, but for a uniform civil code where at least equality between women and men are guaranteed. The government, whichever be the party, seems to support them.
According to legal experts in Bangladesh, there is officially no bar on your entering the country. Why, then, is your Bangladeshi passport not renewed? What has been the position of successive governments - of Khaleda Zia's and Sheikh Hasina's - on your exile and on the fatwas against you?
Both Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina react similarly on this issue. Both do not want me to enter Bangladesh. Though there is no official bar on my entering the country, the government gives no reason why it is not renewing my passport. Fatwas are illegal in Bangladesh. Yet, strangely, no government took action against the fundamentalists who issued fatwas against me. In fact, whichever be the government, it is bent on punishing me.
Are the various fatwas against you - the 50,000-taka reward offered by fundamentalist organisations such as the Khilafat Andolan and the Sahaba Sainik Parishad and the one by a religious leader in Khulna, who has announced a one-lakh-taka reward for your life, still in force?
Though issuing fatwas is illegal, the fundamentalists have the clout to issue fatwas against people and even kill them. The problem is that no government has had enough power to stop the illegal activities of the fundamentalists.
What is the state of the two cases filed against you - by the Government and by Jainal Abedin Babul of Keranikonj, Dhaka, in 1994?
I was granted bail in both. My lawyers are following them up.
As Mulk Raj Anand said in an open letter to you (Frontline, August 12, 1994), you asked for changes in the family laws that are against women, changes in aspects of the Islamic religious code that are against women, human rights for women so that they need not be the slaves of men, freedom to say what you believe in as a secularist, abolition of practices such as divorcing women just by saying "talaq" thrice, and the liberation of women from man-made prohibitions. But in an interview to Associated Press in 1999, Shiekh Hasina said that "Freedom of speech does not mean the right to hurt one's religious sentiments. Taslima's writings are vulgar and not feminist." This sentiment was echoed by many writers and even feminist organisations. What is your response?
They have the right to say what they believe in. I do not think women are even aware that they are oppressed. I do not think that Bangladeshi women dare to cross the barriers of patriarchy and religion. Many women's organisations support the Islamic way of life.
Apart from prominent writers like Mulk Raj Anand and Salman Rushdie, from where and whom do you get support?
I get support from all over the world - from writers, humanists, feminist organisations and from governments barring a few conservative ones. And that is what has kept me going.
In some sense you are a rebel. What made you so? You have written on such topics as "man's sexual domination", "the oppression of women in a Muslim society", and "historical subjugation of women under Islamic laws". You always use aggressive prose, which angers the orthodoxy. When and why did you start writing the way you have?
I started writing columns about women's freedom for Bangladeshi newspapers in 1989. My way of saying things made many people angry but I could not change the way I write. I wanted to wake up women to fight the inequalities and injustices heaped on them and to get the freedom they deserve. I did not whisper, I shouted because I thought that was needed. But many people did not like that.
Controversy brought you fame within a short span. But in the process your claim to being a crusader for women's cause got considerably weakened as many feminist organisations were opposed to your way of doing things. Today your life is in danger. Your critics say that you are a victim of your own doings. Are they justified?
I do not think I am a victim of my own making. I did things I thought were right. I told the truth. I wanted to do good for society. But those men who do not even consider women human beings opposed me. I am the victim of a sick society. The time has not arrived for people to accept what I have been saying. But why should I wait for time to tell the truth?
How has your life been during the eight years that you have been in exile? What are your plans for the future?
Life in exile is not easy. I suffer a lot. But at the same time I get support, solidarity, love and sympathy from lots of people. I write and give interviews to television and radio channels all over the world. I will not give up what I have stood for. I will fight for women's rights. I dream of going back to my country one day. This is my future plan as well as my dream.