My Struggle for Equality

Taslima Nasrin

I was born to a Muslim family in a small town called Mymensingh in what then was East Pakistan. Today, after gaining independence, this country is Bangladesh. It is a nation of more than 140 million people—one of the most populous countries in the world, where 70 percent of the people live below the poverty line and more than half the population cannot read and write.

My childhood was little different from that of other girls of middle-class families. I was sent to a coeducational school until I reached the age of ten. When I turned eleven, I had to go to a girls’ school. From the sixth to the tenth grades, there were no coeducational schools. Girls frequently dropped out of school when they were fifteen or sixteen, when they often were given into an arranged marriage by their parents. Once married, most girls were not allowed to continue school or take a job. They became totally dependent upon their husbands.

My father disapproved of my going to a coeducational college, but he had no alternative when he decided that I should study medical science. My father, I should add, was different from other fathers in this ambition for me.

In my family, it was usual for us children, in the early morning, to read the Qur’an in Arabic. But I found myself asking questions. I wanted to know what I was reading and what the Qur’anic verses actually meant. Our language was Bengali, not Arabic, and it was impossible to understand the verses. We just read, that’s all. When I asked my mother to tell me the meaning of what I was reading, she explained that the meaning was not important—what was important was that Allah would be happy that I was reading the Qur’an in its original language.

When I was thirteen, I found a book that translated the Qur’an into Bengali. I discovered that Allah said that men are superior to women. That men can have four wives. That men can divorce their wives any time they want. That men are allowed to beat women. That women are not allowed to give testimony in some legal cases.

Islam does not consider a woman a separate human being. Man was the original creation; womankind was created secondarily, for the pleasure of man. Islam considers a woman to be a slave or sexual object, nothing more. Her role is to stay at home and to obey her husband, for this is her religious duty. Women are considered weak, so they should be taken care of: their bodies and minds, their desires and wishes, their rights and freedom must be controlled by men. Islam regards women as intellectually, morally, and physically inferior. In marriage, Islam protects the rights of men only. Once the marriage is consummated, women have no rights whatever. The Qur’an gives total freedom to men saying, ”Your women are as your field, go unto them as you will” (2.223). The Hadith says that two prayers that never reach the heavens are those of an escaping slave and those of the reluctant woman who frustrates her husband at night.

Islam considers women psychologically inferior. Women’s testimonies are not allowed in cases of marriage, divorce, and hudu (a class of offenses that includes theft, fornication, consumption of alcohol, and apostasy). When it is allowed, the testimony of two women is worth that of one man. If a woman is raped, she has to produce four male witnesses for the court in order for the charge to stand. In the case in which a man suspects his wife of adultery or denies the legitimacy of the offspring, his testimony is worth that of four witnesses. A woman does not have the right to charge her husband in a similar manner. Women are not allowed to inherit property on equal terms with their brothers. Allah says a male shall inherit twice as much as a female (4.11–12).

Then in the afterlife, after enjoying on Earth all rights and freedoms, after getting all the sexual pleasure and having the satisfaction of being the master, the men will be rewarded in Paradise with wine, food, and seventy-two virgins, including the wives they had on Earth. Allah said, “They relax on luxurious furnishings, and we match them with beautiful virgins” (52.19–20). “Near them, shall be blushing virgins with large beautiful eyes who will be like hidden pearls” (37.48–49). And what is the reward for the pious woman? Nothing but the same old husband, the same man who caused her suffering while the two were on Earth.

As a student of science, I found it hard to accept Qur’anic teachings that the sun moves around the earth, that the moon shines by its own light, and that the purpose of mountains is to support the earth so it will not fall down. I came to suspect that the Qur’an was not written by Allah but rather by some man who wanted only his own comfort. Then I read the Hadith, the words of Muhammad. I found that whenever Muhammad had problems, Allah was able to solve them right away. For example, when Muhammad was sexually aroused after seeing his daughter-in-law, Allah sent him a message saying that he could marry her because his son was adopted and not a “real” son. Allah also created a new rule, that Muslims would not be allowed to adopt any child.

Muhammad married thirteen times. Allah, he said, had told him that he was allowed to enjoy his wives, female slaves, and all the captive women he had. He covered his beautiful young wife, six-year-old Ayesha, in a veil because he did not want his friends admiring her. Allah said that his friends should not go to the Prophet’s house whenever they wanted or look at his wives or ask them for anything or any favors. Muhammad was so jealous that he consequently introduced the veil for his other wives and, ultimately, for all Muslim women. Even though marrying widows was legal, he made it illegal for men to marry any of his own wives when he himself died.

It seemed clear that Muhammad had written the Qur’an to protect and further his own interests. So I stopped believing in Islam. When I studied other religions, I found that they, like Islam, oppressed women.

My father, a physician, had a scientific outlook but was domineering. He did not allow me to play, to go outside the house except to attend school, to meet friends, to go to the cinema or theater, or to read any book that was not on a course syllabus. He wanted me to earn a medical degree so that he could say that one of his children followed his path. He wanted me to be independent, but on the other hand he wanted to find me a good match—educated men often desire educated wives.

As I grew up, I continued to observe the condition of women in my society. My mother, for instance, was the perfect example of an oppressed woman. She had been given into marriage when she was a child. She had been a good student in school, but she was not allowed to continue her studies. My grandfather and my father did not want her to study—they wanted her to be a good housewife, mother, and caregiver.

I grew up fearful because I had to hide my desire for freedom and curiosity about the outside world. I developed a passion for reading—fiction, poetry, essays, anything. But I had to hide the books from my father. I had another passion: to write poetry.

Growing up, I naturally maintained the belief that girls certainly must be inferior to boys, for boys could play outdoors whereas girls had to play with their dolls in a corner of the house. My brothers could go anywhere they wanted and play at anything they wanted. My sister and I could not. I was told that girls were not made for such activities, that their role was to stay home and learn to cook, make beds, and clean the house. My aunts and female neighbors and other acquaintances lived the same way. In our minds, we were not bowing to oppression but carrying on a tradition to which we had become accustomed. As I grew up, I realized that we were not the only ones. There were my female classmates and, later, my female patients. Whether they were rich or poor, beautiful or ugly, had blue or black or brown eyes and white, black, or brown skin, were unmarried or married, illiterate or literate—all were oppressed because of male-devised religion, tradition, culture, and customs.

Because of my country’s strong patriarchal tradition, supported by religious law, women must endure unbearable inequalities and injustices. They suffer from malnutrition and anemia as well as from other physical and psychological illnesses that are not treated until they reach the terminal stages. Women are not supposed to become sick because they must perform their household chores, bear and rear children, and care for all family members—especially making sure that the males are happy. They are condemned to a life of servitude.

For a married couple, the worst thing is to have a female baby. It is not uncommon that either the wife is divorced for having given birth to a female or that she must spend her life in disgrace. A woman’s destiny is to be ruled by her father in childhood, by her husband when she is young and middle-aged, and by her son when she is old.

Far too many women are the victims of human trafficking, slavery, and all kinds of discrimination. Men throw acid on their bodies, burn their faces, smash their noses, gouge their eyes, and walk away happy. Women are beaten, flogged, and stoned to death. If they are raped, they are accused of having allowed the rape, and the rapists are set free. Violence against women is not considered a crime in my country. For example, let me tell you about fifteen-year-old Yasmin. Employed as a maid, she was raped by her master. She fled from the master’s home and was observed by the police as she walked toward her parents’ house. The police told her it was not safe for a girl to be walking on the road at night; they offered her a ride home in their van, and what happened? Six policemen raped her, killed her, and then threw her body into the bushes.

When news of Yasmin’s murder broke, villagers demonstrated against the police. The police shot at them, killing seven. The government then issued a statement that Yasmin was a girl of bad character and a prostitute and that the police had every right to treat her as they did. Such a tragic event is not a rarity in Bangladesh, and I know that it happens in other countries as well.

 

Nobody told me to protest; I simply developed a strong feeling that it was important to fight against oppression. Nobody asked me to shed tears, but I did. By 1989, two books of my poetry had been published. When I started writing prose in the form of a weekly newspaper column, I found that my protests attracted the attention of readers. People either hated me or loved me. One by one, more of my books got published. Selected Columns, a book of my newspaper essays, was published in 1991 and was a best seller for more that a decade.

However, those who hated what I wrote organized demonstrations against me. People began marching through the streets. In 1992 at a national book fair, my books were publicly burned, and I was thrown out of the event. A “Smash Taslima Committee” was launched, and I was forbidden even to visit the fair because the organizers said that my books were causing security problems. In 1993 I returned to the book fair, but this time the fundamentalists and an angry mob assaulted me publicly and broke into the area where my books were kept. I had recently received the biggest literary award in my native language, the prestigious Ananda Award for Bengali literature, yet at the same time I was the object of the biggest hate compaign in my nation’s history. The government confiscated my passport and told me not to write any more if I cared to keep my job as a medical doctor in a public hospital. In protest, I quit the job. My passport was not returned until a year later and then only after a human-rights campaign organized outside Bangladesh successfully pressured the government to do so.

I continued my writing, wherein I cried loudly for equality and justice for all people, whatever their religion or gender. I spoke loudly on behalf of secularism. I spoke against religious laws that oppress women. My documentary novel, Lajja, a protest against the maltreatment of minorities, was banned by the government of Bangladesh in 1993.

By writing my books, I wanted to do something constructive; I wanted to help women understand that they are oppressed but do not need to be. I wanted to encourage them to fight for their rights and freedom. My work exposed women to a different way of thinking. That infuriated the religionists and the male chauvinists, and fundamentalists took the stand of absolutely refusing to tolerate any of my views. They objected to a woman’s breaking her chains and becoming free, and so they could not tolerate my saying that the Qur’an is out of place in modern society, outdated, and that secular law with a uniform civil code for women is an absolute necessity. The fundamentalists issued a fatwa against me and set a price on my head. They broke into newspaper offices and sued my editors, publishers, and me. In 1994, they demanded my execution by hanging. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets. (A single public meeting to demand my execution drew three hundred thousand participants.) General strikes were called all across Bangladesh demanding my death. Instead of taking action against these agitators, the government took action against me. The government of Bangladesh filed a case against me, charging that I had hurt the religious feelings of the people. An arrest warrant that did not allow bail was issued for me. I had no alternative but to go into hiding for two months, during which time I was fortunate to receive the support of Western democratic governments, feminists, and human-rights activists. They literally helped save my life. I was absolutely certain that I would be killed; day after day mobs of people demanded my death. At last I was granted bail—and was immediately forced by the Bangladeshi government to leave my country. Since then, I have made many efforts to go back, but I have not been allowed to.

Meanwhile, many of my books are banned in Bangladesh. A Bangladesh court sentenced me in absentia to one year in prison because I dared criticize Islam in several of my books.

What underlies the maltreatment I suffered, as it does so many other human ills? It is because of religion that there is ignorance across the world. Because of religion, there is hatred; there is bloodshed. Because of religion there is illiteracy and poverty, injustices and inequalities. Because of religion, millions of women suffer flogging, burning, and stoning. Because of religion, my books are burned and banned. Because of religion, I was thrown out of my country. But humanity is not helpless; we can do something. We can eliminate all the problems of humanity that are caused by belief in God. It is dangerous to follow religions and their scriptures in this modern world. Not only the Qur’an but all religious scriptures are outdated and out of place in modern society.

Both the Judeo-Christian Bible and the Qur’an clearly accept and condone slavery. Jesus explicitly tells slaves to accept their roles and obey their masters. No one in the world today would defend chattel slavery in any public forum or allow it to exist under any legal code. Neither fundamentalist Christians nor Orthodox Jews today talk about animal sacrifice or slavery. Even in those countries in which Sharia law is practiced, where stoning for adultery and amputation for stealing are legal consequences, no legitimization of slavery is ever mentioned. Polygamy and concubinage are clearly accepted in the Old Testament, but nowhere in the Judeo-Christian world are either of these practices legal today. Thus, religious conservatives’ insistence on perpetuating practices that denigrate, oppress, and suppress women under the pretext that scripture demands them is a hoax. Such practices could and should be delegitimized, just as chattel slavery has been.

Humankind is facing an uncertain future; the probability of new kinds of conflicts looms large. In particular, I have in mind the conflict between secularism and fundamentalism. I do not agree with those who think that the dominant conflict is simply between religions. After all, there are fundamentalists in every religious community. Likewise, I do not agree with those people who think that the Crusades of the Middle Ages are going to be repeated soon. Nor do I think the central conflict is between East and West. To me, the conflict is basically between irrational blind faith and the modern rational, logical mind, between modernity and anti-modernism. While some people want to go forward, others struggle to go backward. It is a conflict between the future and the past, between innovation and tradition, between reason and barbarism, between those who value freedom and those who do not.

I have been writing about women’s rights and freedom. My freedom of expression has been continuously violated by the Bangladeshi authorities. I have not been able to reach the readers of my country. All four parts of my memoirs, published between 1999 and 2003, have been banned in Bangladesh. My autobiography is not just my life story. It tells a story thousands of women know. It tells how Muslim women live in a patriarchal country with hundreds of traditions that trap them. I looked back into my childhood days and described my life as a female child. I recounted how I was brought up, noting that I had privileges many others did not. I was able to study and become a medical doctor, something most girls cannot even dream about. I wanted to show where and how I grew up and what made me think differently, what made me do things differently. I think it is important to give other women the strength to revolt against the oppressive system that I grew up under and which still continues to oppress them. I told the truth. I expressed everything that happened in my life.

Normally it is taboo to reveal rape or attempted rape by male members of one’s family. Girls shut their mouths because they are terribly ashamed. But I did not shut my mouth. I did not care what people would say to me or to my family. I know well that many women feel that I am telling their stories, too. We, the victims, should cry out loud. We need to be heard. We must protest loudly and demand our freedom and rights. We must refuse to be shackled, chained, beaten, and threatened.

If women do not fight to end their oppression by a shameful patriarchal and religious system, then shame on women! Shame on us for not protesting, for not fighting. Shame on us for permitting a system to continue that will traumatize our daughters.

My story is not unique. My experiences, unfortunately, have been shared by millions. In my book, I cried for myself. I also cried for all the others who have not been able to enjoy the productive life of which they are capable and which they most assuredly deserve. We who are women must no longer remain solitary, crying softly in lonely places.

I do not cry anymore, even though I have no country to call my own. The country where I was born and raised, memories of whose land and people are intrinsic parts of my being, whose language and culture molded me—that country has forsaken me. When I was forced to leave Bangladesh, freethinking people from all over the world stood by me. I went into exile in the West, living in Sweden, Germany, Sweden again, and the United States. Always I yearned to return to my own land but never have I been permitted to do so. Even when my mother was on her deathbed in 1998, the Bangladeshi government told me I could not return. In 2002, when my father lay dying, I begged, pleaded, and cried to be allowed to see him, if only for two days. The government of Bangladesh refused to allow me entry. They even refused to renew my passport.

For ten long years, I wandered from one European country to the next. I felt like a foreigner everywhere, an alien in the truest sense. I resolved to go to India. There I could at least have a taste of home. For many years, India kept its doors firmly shut to me. When I finally was given permission to get a residential permit in 2004, I did not waste a moment. I eagerly chose India’s state of West Bengal as my new home. I took up residence in Kolkata, its capital city. At last I felt at home.

Yet even in India, Muslim fundamentalists attacked me—with fatwas, a price on my head, and worse. After I was physically attacked by Muslim fundamentalists in Hyderabad in 2007, instead of taking action against the fundamentalists, an Indian government took action against me! The government of West Bengal placed me under house arrest and repeatedly urged me to leave the state and preferably the country. Four months into my house arrest, a group of Muslim fundamentalists staged a violent protest against my continued presence. In November 2007, I was bundled out of the state that for four years had been my home.

It is absolutely amazing that no action was taken against those who indulged in this violence, who burned vehicles in the streets and put a price on my head. Instead I, the victim, was tortured! West Bengal sent me to the state of Rajasthan, but I was no more welcome there. When you are driven out of one state, you are not wanted in others. Finally, the central government took charge of me. They whisked me to a secret location in Delhi and put me under house arrest. I did not have the right to meet with any of my friends. I had no right to step out of my room. It was like a death chamber for seven and a half months, during which the Indian government ceaselessly pressured me to leave the country. But where was I to go?

India, which prides itself on being the world’s largest democracy, an allegedly secular state, could not shelter me, a person whose entire life has been spent in the cause of secular humanism, a person who adopted India as her land and Kolkata as her home, and who, as a Bengali writer, wanted to live in a Bengali environment, surrounded by her own language and culture. Was this too much to ask? I was amazed that not one significant political party, organization, or institution protested against the way in which I had been treated. Nor did many individuals—including many who are regarded as standard-bearers of secularism—speak up for me.

Unfortunately, if one is to be secular in India, one must be either pro-Muslim or pro-Islam. One must not speak critically of Muslim fundamentalists even if they issue fatwas against women or writers and set prices on their heads. A secular Indian must not speak ill of a Muslim because Muslims are a minority in that country. Because a minority could be oppressed by the majority, all Muslims should be defended whatever their crime. If Muslim fundamentalists want to enact Muslim laws that discriminate outrageously against women, secular Indians appear prepared to accept those demands in the name of multiculturalism, or in the name of defending Muslims.

I stood alone against enormous governmental pressure. I realize now that it is possible to fight fundamentalists, but it is impossible to fight powerful governments. Earlier this year I was forced to leave India, finally and silently.

I have not lost hope. Nevertheless, if I am never allowed to return to Bengal, I will have a nomadic existence. Like a destitute orphan, I shall be forced to wander from place to place in search of shelter.

For speaking out on behalf of justice, do I really deserve to be a social pariah on an entire subcontinent? Chased out and made homeless everywhere—is this justice? Can multitudes of human beings truly approve of such behavior? If there is no freedom of speech in an Islamic society, is
there any hope of progress? Why shouldn’t there be the right to criticize and oppose Islam? There is a popular belief that Islamic fundamentalists are just a minority, that most Muslims are moderate. If an Islamic society is not capable of checking the rise of fundamentalism within itself, perhaps the notion of “moderate” or “progressive” people in Muslim society is but pretense. How many “moderate Muslims” opposed the numerous fatwas that fundamentalists throughout the world have been handing out against me and many others? How many moderate Muslims have opposed the heinous acts of cruelty perpetrated on women by fundamentalists? Where are the women—those for whose sake I am writing? I do not see them opposing what is being done to me or taking a strong stance on my behalf.

This is my life. Instead of being able to live where I was born and raised, I live in the West where I feel like an outsider. I am a stranger in my own country of Bangladesh, a stranger in neighboring India—and a stranger in the West where I am now living! Exile, for me, is a bus stop at which I wait for a bus to go home.

I am homeless, truly homeless! There is no place in this wide world that I can call my home. And yet I have one, and it consists of men and women who bravely oppose the forces of darkness and ignorance. The hearts of these people are my home and my nation, my only safe haven, shelter, and refuge. The people who support me, sympathize with me, and express solidarity with me are my home; they are my country. My home is the love I receive from women all over the world, from rationalists, freethinkers, secularists, and humanists.

I do not regret my actions or anything that I have written. Come what may, I will continue my fight against extremist, fundamentalist, and intolerant forces without compromise, forever.

Taslima Nasrin

Taslima Nasrin, Bangladesh, Author, Physician, Social Critic


I was born to a Muslim family in a small town called Mymensingh in what then was East Pakistan. Today, after gaining independence, this country is Bangladesh. It is a nation of more than 140 million people—one of the most populous countries in the world, where 70 percent of the people live below the poverty …

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