Sunday, October 03, 2004

Bangladesh: The Taslima Nasreen Interview

[Excerpt: I sympathise with all anti-fundamentalist groups. Unfortunately, there were very few people to support me when I had a price on my head. Now those who fight against fundamentalism
support religion. But I didn't do so. I attacked Islam because it considered women inferior. Because as women we were never given our inheritance rights, told to stay behind the burqa and suffer
untold torture at the hands of men. In Bangladesh, religion has become a state matter. Political parties are using religion to get votes from ignorant people.]

`I am everywoman'

University students in Bangladesh are now reading her work and examining her in a new light. This, itself, is a big achievement, Taslima Nasreen tells ESHA BHATTACHARJEE before leaving for Paris.Excerpts from an interview —

You've always said Kolkata feels like home. You love walking its lanes and bylanes, visiting its fishmarkets, mingling with the people. Do you think it'll ever be possible to make Kolkata your home? Has the city changed in any way?

Home, I believe, is where there's love. And I get that in plenty in Kolkata. That's why I keep coming back here. I will be applying for a residency permit, but it's so difficult to get a tourist visa, leave
alone being granted permanent residency. This time I'd applied for a visa from New York. The Indian Embassy refused me… I came to Europe and applied again. I wrote to Sonia Gandhi, telling her how badly I needed to visit the country because some of my friends were very ill and I needed to see them.

Kolkata is changing… I see too many multi-storeyed buildings these days, too many shopping centres. Eager young faces crowd the streets…but this new generation isn't much conscious of its culture.

Television has invaded our lives and it's propagating the values of
the more powerful nations, which may not always be good. Say, how many people today can freely travel around the world to be really influenced by what's happening globally?

Real globalisation can be
possible only when we have the options before us… when someone from a poor country can visit a rich country and not be afraid of anything. I think our youth need to realise Bangla culture is so much richer and beautiful than all that they get to see around them. I'm not against change, but ushering in the new doesn't have to be at the cost of ignoring our own treasures.

In most of your writings you express very strong personal views on fundamentalism. Do you just hate fundamentalism, or is there also an aversion to Islam?

Fundamentalism stands against democracy, against all human rights and against the freedom of women. If doesn't give an individual any personal choice or freedom of expression; everything has to do with darkness. I think it's a direct fallout of religion. If someone believes in the A-to-Z of religious scriptures, he's a fundamentalist. Which means he's also against women.

You've also equated religion with patriarchy – No Gods-No Masters. But can we really ignore religion? Isn't it needed for social integrity?

No, not at all. Religion has always been the cause of hatred and bloodshed. We're seeing this right from the beginning of world history. It's caused so much hatred, so much pain and suffering. I
strongly believe that a state must to be secular… and by that I mean without religion.

In your novels you take the position of the victim. Do you feel you're a victim of persecution?

In a patriarchal society, all women are victims. For centuries we've been brainwashed to believe that we're born to serve men, that we're nothing but their slaves. I'm a victim of patriarchy… of religion. In our society, women are taught that they're weak. And men are told that they are our superiors. It's all a matter of mental conditioning.

The West has accepted you with open arms. But then, it has a particular agenda. Do you think your writings feed Western prejudices about Islam?

No, not at all. The West has definitely given me shelter when I needed it most. People living there who believe in human rights, in the freedom of expression, have definitely helped me continue writing. I get a lot of respect and adulation from the Western world. But I am firm in my ideals. I speak my mind, and not just against Islam, but against Judaism, Christianity… against all religions and fundamentalists. I stand for human rights, for humanity. So where's the question of using me?

My writings on American imperialism, American foreign policy, on war and its effects have appeared in various journals and publications in Europe and the USA. I am concerned with the conflict between secularism and fundamentalism, innovation and tradition, those who value freedom and those who don't, blind irrational faith and a rational logical mind.

In Bangladesh, there are also secular, pluralist, liberal groups who
are under threat. Do you not ally yourself with these people who are fighting against extreme nationalism and religious bigots? Which group or which section of people do you sympathise with in Bangladesh?

I sympathise with all anti-fundamentalist groups. Unfortunately, there were very few people to support me when I had a price on my head. Now those who fight against fundamentalism support religion. But I didn't do so. I attacked Islam because it considered women inferior. Because as women we were never given our inheritance rights, told to stay behind the burqa and suffer untold torture at the hands of men.

In Bangladesh, religion has become a state matter. Political parties
are using religion to get votes from ignorant people.

You're definitely not the only writer from Bangladesh who's been a target of fundamentalist groups. People like Shahriyar Kabir, Muntafir Mamoon have all been in the news…

Yes, but the difference is there is a fatwa on me… These writers can stay in Bangladesh and carry on with their work. But I am not allowed to do that…

Why are people like Shamshur Rahman silent about what's happening in Bangladesh? Does he have no voice or has the media hype that has generated around you stifled these voices?

Of course, Rahman does write in various anti-fundamentalist publications. He definitely has a say in a lot of things. It's just that in my case there was a whole country against one writer. The impact was enormous. Obviously the media took up my case in a big way. Can you imagine 4,00,000-5,00,000 people marching in the streets of Bangladesh demanding my head? The country was paralysed by a general strike… I can't tell you the darkness that followed…

The NGO Proshika in Bangladesh, which encouraged economic, cultural and social emancipation of women, was in news earlier this year when its leaders were jailed and tortured. What is your response to such incidents?

Fundamentalist groups in Bangladesh have always attacked NGOs and other humanitarian groups working for the cause of women. Hundreds of schools for girls have been burnt down, women are being stoned to death… it's really nothing new. The religious fanatics want to bring in theocracy in the country… and the political parties are siding with them.

How effective or significant a figure do you think you've been in the resistance against fundamentalism in Bangladesh?

Well, I started a revolution. Today there are thousands of cases pending in court against me for hurting religious sentiments. I was asked to leave Bangladesh leaving my work incomplete. But I have tried to go on despite the odds. Today, wherever I am, I continue to write against fundamentalism and violence against women. I live in an alien land, away from friends, family and my culture… Interestingly, the young generation in Bangladesh today is interested in reading my
writings… they're beginning to think in a new way… university students in Bangladesh have read Dwikhandito and have analysed the work in a new light.

Your writings are very much about your own life. How far do you think you've been emblematic of women in Bangladesh?

I haven't just written about myself; I've spoken for all women. I've
tried to depict the real picture. Women all over Bangladesh tell me that I've told their story. You can find me in every woman. I guess the language of torture is the same.

Have you ever thought of building a pressure group that would force the Bangladesh government to address the problems of women – issues like education, domestic violence, health and sanitation? Don't you think, with your kind of international reach and media support, there will be quicker results?

I do influence the donor countries Bangladesh is dependent on. For instance when there was the threat to kill me, Norway threatened to stop its 300 million kroner aid unless I was handed over to them. I'm constantly in touch with human rights organisations like Amnesty International… but no matter how much I try to do from outside Bangladesh, things won't change unless there is awareness in society from within.

You've often been referred to as "the most dangerous woman in the world", as "Asia's Antigone". Critics say you're constantly seeking sensation and publicity. Is that true?

You see, I have something to say to people. I want women to listen to me. And I can't do that sitting in a room, talking to myself. I have to take the help of the media… the media has to publicise my work, because how else would the word get around? I'm not scared about publicity… the right kind of publicity can change society… why sit tight and be scared of cynics?

(The interviewer is on the staff of The Statesman, Kolkata.)

Statesman, Kolkata, 03/10/2004