A BRIEF BIOGRAPHY
Taslima Nasrin was born in August 1962 to a Muslim family in Mymensingh, East Pakistan. Because the area became independent in 1971, her city of birth is now in the country called Bangladesh.
Growing up in a highly restrictive and conservative environment, Taslima was fond of literature while she also excelled in science. She started writing when she was 15 years old, beginning with poetry in literary magazines, and afterwards herself editing a literary periodical called Senjuti (1978 – 1983). She was the president of a literary organization while in medical school, where she staged many cultural programs. Earning her medical degree in 1984, she worked in public hospitals for eight years.
Her first book – of poetry – was published in 1986. Her second became a huge success in 1989, and editors of progressive daily and weekly newspapers suggested that she write regular columns. Next she started writing about women’s oppression. With no hesitation she criticized religion, traditions, and the oppressive cultures and customs that discriminate against women. Her strong language and uncompromising attitude against male domination stirred many people, eliciting both love and hatred from her readers.
In 1992 she received the prestigious literary award Ananda from West Bengal in India for her Nirbachito Kolam (Selected Columns), the first writer from Bangladesh to earn that award. Despite allegations of jealousy among other writers about this, the topmost intellectuals and writers continued to support her.
Islamic fundamentalists launched a campaign against her in 1990, staging street demonstrations and processions. They broke into newspaper offices that she used to regularly write from, sued her editors and publishers, and put her life in danger, a danger that only increased over time. She was publicly assaulted several times by fundamentalist mobs. No longer was she welcomed to any public places, not even to book fairs that she loved to visit. In 1993, a fundamentalist organization called Soldiers of Islam issued a fatwa against her, a price was set on her head because of her criticism of Islam, and she was confined to her house. The government asked her to quit writing if she hoped to keep her job, then confiscated her passport. She was thus forced to quit her job.
Inasmuch as she had become a best-selling author in Bangladesh and West Bengal in India, she managed to survive the hostility. The government, however, banned Lajja (Shame), in which she described the atrocities against Hindu minorities by Muslim fundamentalists, her main message being “Let humanism be the other name of religion.”
According to Taslima, the religious scriptures are out of sync with the present. Instead of religious laws, she maintains, what is needed is a uniform civil code that accords women equality and justice. Her views caused fourteen different political and non-political religious organizations to unite for the first time, starting violent demonstrations, calling a general strike, blocking government offices, and demanding her immediate execution by hanging. The government, instead of taking action against the fundamentalists, turned against her. A case was filed charging that she hurt people’s religious feelings, and a non-bailable arrest warrant was issued. Deeming prison to be an extremely unsafe place, Taslima went into hiding for two months.
In the meantime two more fatwas were issued by Islamic extremists, two more prices were set on her head, and thousands of fundamentalists took to the streets, demanding her death. Processions featuring swords and snakes thumped through the streets of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. The majority who were not fundamentalists remained silent. Regardless, some anti-fundamentalist political groups did protest the fundamentalist uprising, daring to defend Taslima as a writer and a human being who should have the freedom to express her views. Yet only a few writers defended her rights. Some gave statements to the newspapers complaining about the fundamentalists as well as the government’s activities. Because this proved insufficient, PEN, the international organization of writers, and many humanist organizations beyond the borders of Bangladesh came to Taslima’s support. News of her plight became known throughout the world. Some western democratic governments that endorse human rights and freedom of expression tried saving her life. After long miserable days in hiding, she was finally granted bail but was also forced to leave her country.
In 1998, without the government’s permission she risked a return, to be with her ailing mother. Again, fundamentalists demanded she be killed and again she was forced to leave. When her mother – a religious Muslim – died, nobody came from any mosque to lead her funeral, her crime being that she was the mother of an infidel.
Taslima has been living in exile in Europe. She has written twenty-four books of poetry, essays, novels, and short stories in her native language of Bengali. Some have been translated into twenty different languages. Her applications to the Bangladesh government to be allowed to return have been denied repeatedly. One Bangladesh court sentenced her in absentia to a one-year prison term. The Bangladesh government has recently banned two other of her books, Amar Meyebela and Utal Hawa.
Meanwhile, the numerous awards she has received in western countries have publicized her struggle for women’s rights and freedom of expression. In 2000, she again received the Ananda award for her memoir, Amar Meyebela (My Girlhood), a symbol of one who fights for free speech, Taslima has been invited to speak in many countries and at renowned universities throughout the world. Her dreams of secularization of Islamic countries and secular instead of religious education are becoming increasingly more accepted and honored by those who value freedom.
Warren Allen Smith