There are many who utter the names of Salman Rushdie & Taslima Nasreen truly in the same breath. However, if there are great differences between one individual and the other, this co-vocalization may naturally become a matter of discomfiture. When I am referred to as the ‘Female Rushdie’, these days I ask back, why aren’t you calling Salman Rushdie the ‘Male Nasreen’ instead? Barring the fatwa, everything else is different between us – I know that very well. Rushdie is a man; I’m a woman. This is a huge dissimilarity. He enjoys certain advantages by virtue of being a man; I, on the other hand, am always at a disadvantage because I am a woman. After the fatwa was issued, Rushdie had begged the fundamentalists for forgiveness, and declared that he had become a born-again Muslim. I never asked for a pardon. I didn’t even want to become a Muslim. I have been an atheist since childhood – I held my head high to remain one, weathering all tumultuous storms. Rushdie never lived in Iran, the country that brought out the fatwa in his name. In contrast, the country where extremists have marched year after year demanding that I be hanged till death, the country in which intolerant Muslims went berserk trying to silence me forever, the country which took out an arrest warrant in my name because of a lawsuit filed by the government – because of which I was forced to go into hiding for months on end, the country where the fundamentalist terrorists would have torn me apart if they could lay a hand on me – I have been physically present in that country during those harrowing times. I, alone, had to bear the brunt of all the torture meted out by the fundamentalists and the government alike. No one expelled Rushdie from his country as a result of the fatwa; he didn’t have to suffer banishment. England is his country; he lived there, and still does. Rushdie had only a single fatwa against him; there were, against me, three fatwas from Bangladesh, five from India, each with a price on my head. Rushdie never had to budge; I was thrown out from two countries because of my writings. Rushdie had one of his books (The Satanic Verses) banned; I had five – Lajja (Shame), Amar Meyebela (My Girlhood), Utol Haowa (The Tempest), Dwikhondito (Split in Two), and Sei Sob Andhokar (All Those Darkness). Rushdie may criticize religion, but he is not associated with any atheist-humanist group or Human Rights organization – whereas I am, actively. In his personal life, Rushdie is highly conceited; I am its exact opposite. Rushdie is gallivanting with one young woman after another, his playthings many years his junior. His senile pranks are not considered pranks; rather, he is regarded as a strong, virile, bodacious lover-boy – an object of envy to many younger men. In contrast, despite my spending life without a male companion, there is no dearth of people calling me a ‘whore’ or a ‘deviant woman’, and whipping up various sex scandals involving me. Only a man has the right to enjoy a sex life. If a woman does so or talks or writes about women’s equal right to enjoy a sex life, she is labeled a whore. Ever since I started writing, I have received criticism and contempt from people: advocating sexual freedom for women, I am apparently destroying the society. Even though I believe Sexual freedom is not about saying YES to sex always. It is also about saying NO to sex. There is another excellent similarity or difference between Rushdie and me. Many of those who consider Rushdie a good writer have not read his books. Many of those who call me a bad writer have not read a word of my writings.
I took risks of my life to support Rushdie publicly in 1989 in Bangladesh, a Muslim majority country. Rushdie’s name has been associated with mine since 1993. Following the fatwa from Iran, Rushdie became a much-discussed and famous name. My name, on the other hand, crossed the boundaries of Bangladesh and India after a price was set on my head. Rushdie was amongst other European authors who wrote an open letter for me during those desperate period when I was forced to live in hiding after the Bangladesh government filed a case against me on the charges of blasphemy. Finally, when I was expelled and living in exile, I heard that Rushdie apparently got furious after reading my opinion about him published in Das Spiegel, a German magazine. In that piece, I expressed my disappointment at Rushdie’s begging for forgiveness to Mullahs in response to the fatwa, which I thought was decidedly cowardly.
Rushdie lived in New York City in 2008-2010, as did I. But there was no possibility of us meeting. He was the president of the Pen Club, a large organization of authors and poets of America. For a couple of years, the Pen Club had been organizing massive demonstrations in support of freedom of expression in New York City. Various authors from Asia and Africa, almost all little known, have been brought over. But I was not welcomed to tell my story how my freedom of expression was violated over the years and how I was fighting religious fundamentalists and the powerful governments alone without any compromise. Salman Rushdie was well aware that I have been recently thrown out of India; there were loathsome and incredible attacks against my freedom of expression. Almost all of my books have been banned in Bangladesh, either officially or socially. Not just Bangladesh, even West Bengal banned my book and threw me out of the state. Not only that, I was kept under house arrest in Kolkata and Delhi for a long seven months during the process of banishment. Eventually, I have been ousted from India. Salman Rushdie was celebrating freedom of speech by cunningly ignoring my glowing history. He can do whatever he wants. One of his security guards wrote an unflattering book about him; he made arrangements with publishers so that the book would not see the light of the day. Yes, he is celebrating freedom of speech. He is a man, people think nothing of it when he chases after much younger women, even at sixty plus. Even if women have complained that Rushdie doesn’t consider them anything more than sex objects, people don’t dislike him. This epitome of male chauvinism, this author has garnered immense name and fame; I am glad that I don’t have any similarities with him beyond the fatwa. To be honest, it irritates me no end to have my name joined with his.
Another name is being entangled with mine for the past couple of years. He is Maqbul Fida Hussein, a great artist. His paintings fetch the highest price in India. He is considered by many as India’s top painter. He has recently hurt Hindu religious sentiments by painting Saraswati (the Hindu Goddess of Learning) in the nude. Hindu fundamentalists have destroyed his paintings, threatened him, and forced him to leave the country. I believe in one hundred percent freedom of speech of human beings. I firmly believe that Maqbul Fida Hussein should have the freedom of drawing whatever he wants. No one has the right to persecute him for this reason. However, it still makes me uncomfortable if my insignificant name is linked with that of as great an artist as Fida Hussein. Because, despite my insignificance, I hold my principles very dear; I have no favorable disposition towards someone, however world-famous for any reason, whose values don’t measure up to mine. I don’t feel gratified to have my name uttered along with that of such a person. When a controversy has broken out in India over Maqbul Fida Hussein’s painting a nude Saraswati, I have very naturally sided with the freedom of the artist. Since atheists are rare amongst Muslims, I find it heartening to find a Muslim turn secular or atheist. Thereafter, I went through all of Hussein’s paintings minutely, seeking to find if he had ever mocked any religion other than Hinduism, especially his own, Islam. I found zilch. Instead, he has used the word ‘Allah’, written in Arabic, on his canvas with much respect and care. I saw clearly that he had a great faith in and regard for Islam. He did not believe in any religion other than Islam! His painting of Lakshmi and Saraswati in the nude stemmed from his disregard for Hinduism! Would he ever draw Muhammad in the nude? I am certain he won’t. I have no problem drawing naked pictures of gods and goddesses or prophets of any religion. I am equitable in my lack of belief in all religions of the world. Putting one religion over another, hating one and loving or believing in another – I have no such issues. All religions say, your religion is the best and true and correct, your god is the only true god; all other religions are erroneous, all other gods, false! Having been indoctrinated thus, extremists blinded by faith are able to easily attack others who do not belong to their faith. Christian extremists have once wreaked havoc in Europe; even now, they are driven to violence against abortion. Hindu extremists have recently been on a rampage in Ayodhya of India, and in Gujarat. Attacks by Muslim extremists time and again have shaken up the world, let alone India. Fida Hussein is similar to those religious individuals, who put faith in their own religion while criticizing others’. I have no reason for any interest in having my name linked with Fida Hussein’s – even though he may be a great tree to my inconsequential twig of grass; because I am an atheist, and he… Not only is he a theist, but he is a theist only in respect of his own god. When it comes to believing in many other gods in the world, he has no faith.
The only similarity that I have with Fida Hussein is that almost around the same time, we both had to leave India following a barrage of attacks from irrational religionists. This apart, everything else is dissimilar. The prime difference is that his exile was finally his choice, while mine was not. I was evicted not only from my Kolkata residence, but from India as well by the authorities. No, those responsible were not some random individuals or groups blinded by faith, but the government. Fida Hussein has houses to stay in foreign lands, I don’t. The Indian government has been trying to repatriate Hussein; I have been barred from entry by both Bangladesh & India governments. After being ousted from India, whenever I have re-entered with the intention of taking up residence, I have been immediately pushed away. Fida Hussein has but mocked one religion; I, discussing women’s rights, castigate the misogynistic thesis of all religions, always making the following points – let there be laws promulgated on the basis of equal rights, let the misogynistic laws and traditions perish. I criticize all religions equitably, not leaving out my family’s religion, Islam.
I don’t have the name, fame and clout of Rushdie or Fida Hussein. However, even then, I don’t want my name associated with theirs in any way. The way I have been tormented for years by religious governments in power, they have not had to face even a fraction of that. The manner in which I am compelled to live abroad, in the darkness of uncertainty, with no place to call home, and to fend for myself in sickness and through insolvency, while carrying on my struggles for my beliefs and principles, is not inconsequential. Rushdie or Hussain never had to encounter such an intolerable situation. My utmost respect for their craft notwithstanding, I think it’s unfair to put in the same bracket as those two men. However people may perceive my incessant struggle for a society free of religion and discrimination, a society with equality and equal rights, those men, regardless of their stature as artists of renown, cannot come even close to my principles.