Feb 05 2014
Jan 31 2014
My new book is called ‘Nishiddho’ in Bengali. Nishiddho has been published in West Bengal and Bangladesh. Nishiddho means forbidden. I hope forbidden will not be forbidden this year. Religious fanatics love to demand for my execution by hanging because they hate what I write. Governments love to stand beside the fanatics and ban my books. Forbidden is now available at the Kolkata and Dhaka book fairs. But I am not allowed to visit any of the book fairs. I am banned. I am not allowed to enter Bangladesh and West Bengal.
Fanatics suck. Governments suck even more.
Jan 29 2014
The next guest blogger today is MEREDITH TAX. She has been a writer and political activist since the late 1960s. She was a member of Bread and Roses, an early socialist-feminist group in Boston, and her 1970 essay, “Woman and Her Mind: The Story of Everyday Life,” is considered a founding document of the US women’s liberation movement.
In A Room of Her Own Virginia Woolf asked why the literary and intellectual world (overwhelmingly male in 1929) was so cold to works written by women. She concluded that men need to believe women see them as superior beings in order to justify their control of society; hence evidence of women’s actual views is unwelcome. Silencing of women writers is thus essential to patriarchy. Recent cases of gender-based censorship, ranging from Taslima Nasrin in India to feminist bloggers in the United States, indicate that Woolf’s analysis still holds.
And what is gender-based censorship? The Women’s World Organization for Rights, Literature and Development (Women’s WORLD) defined it in The Power of the Word: Culture, Censorship and Voice, drafted by yours truly in 1995:
“Women who write on issues of state politics are silenced by the same means used to silence men in opposition, though, in practice, even these forms of censorship are affected by gender. But gender-based censorship, as we see it, is much broader and more pervasive than this official, organized suppression. It is embedded in a range of social mechanisms that mute women’s voices, deny validity to their experience, and exclude them from the political discourse. Its purpose is to obscure the real conditions of women’s lives and the inequity of patriarchal gender relations, and prevent women writers from breaking the silence, by targeting women who don’t know their place in order to intimidate the rest.”
Though much gender-based censorship today is done in the name of religion, its roots are in misogyny and sexual panic. Take, for instance, the US, where this month’s big story is “Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet,” by feminist journalist Amanda Hess, who describes herself as a freelance writer reporting on sex, Hollywood, teenagers, and technology, and whose blog is called Sex with Amanda Hess. Among other examples, she notes the blizzard of online rape threats that hit Caroline Criado-Perez when she started a website petitioning the Bank of England to put more women’s faces on banknotes. Hess also notes the lack of action on internet death and rape threats and the assiduous passing of the buck between law enforcement agencies and internet companies. Last year, for instance, US atheist blogger “skepchick” Rebecca Watson found that the reaction of the police when she reported death and rape threats was to say they couldn’t do anything unless someone actually did attack her, “at which point they’d have a pretty good lead.”
All this can have a chilling effect on women’s freedom of expression. As Hess relates, “Threats of rape, death, and stalking can overpower our emotional bandwidth, take up our time, and cost us money through legal fees, online protection services, and missed wages.” Conor Friedersdorf postulates that such “gendered online abuse” may explain why there are so few prominent women bloggers compared to men; in response to a constant stream of threats and invective, many of his women friends “either shuttered their personal blogs and stopped writing for the public, or shifted their journalistic efforts to a traditional format rather than the more personalized blog format.”
The internet is an area in which censorship operates differently for men and women, for the interests of women bloggers, who need to feel safe enough to write, conflict with those of internet trolls who want to feel free to abuse women as much as they like. The feminist movement fought for many years to develop legal protections like the US Violence Against Women Act, which criminalizes phone threats, and recently proposed including online threats. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a watchdog group, opposed this idea, citing privacy considerations. But should privacy trump death threats? In the age of Snowden, nobody wants to call for more government interference in online communications yet, like freedom of religion, male self-expression must be limited by recognition that women too have rights, and that women’s voices—especially when they take up subjects others do not want to deal with—are central to democracy, equality, and the public good.
The same consideration applies to Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasrin, whose censors have brewed a lethal mix of fundamentalism, political opportunism, and sexual silencing to try to shut her up. In 1994 Nasrin was driven from Bangladesh by a combination of Islamist fatwa and government indictment for “offending religious feelings.” The Islamists hated the way she criticized religion and the government hated her because she wrote a book exposing Muslim violence against Hindus, which the Bangladesh National Party government claimed did not exist. She was put under death threat, went underground, and became one of the Northern media’s first poster girls for Islamist mistreatment of women. I helped organize a campaign on her behalf at the time and, I wrote in 2002, thought sex was as central to her persecution as religion or politics:
“Nasrin did not have to flee Bangladesh merely because she wrote a novel about the persecution of its Hindu minority, or told an Indian reporter the Sharia … was outdated and should be left behind. Other Bangladeshi writers, male and female, have said such things; some have also been threatened by fundamentalists; but most are still there. Nasrin combined the violation of those taboos with an even more daring transgression: She opened the closet door on a whole world of subterranean sexual experience and feeling, much of it abusive, and none of it considered fit to be discussed. She wrote about sex and religion and state politics all together, and she did it at a bad time, when fundamentalism was on the rise. The combination did her in.”
Nasrin eventually settled in Kolkata ,where she lived quite happily from 2004 until 2007, when Islamists began protesting her existence again. What had begun as a movement by poor, largely Muslim farmers against forced industrialization and land seizures in Nandigram got deflected by political manipulation into a riot over Nasrin. The ruling party in West Bengal, at that time the leftwing CPI(M), found it a lot easier to get rid of her than to deal with land issues. When I saw Nasrin the next year in New York, she told me they had shipped her off to Delhi without even giving her time to pack. In Delhi the federal government essentially kept her under house arrest for months, claiming this was for her own protection while trying to convince her to get out of India.
One might ask why leftwing secularist parties like the CPI(M) and its federal ally, the Congress Party, would collude with Muslim fundamentalists to suppress free speech. As Nasrin says, it is all about electoral politics. “Who doesn’t want to get Muslim votes? They are 25% of the population.”
She stayed away for a few years, then returned to India and, being barred from Kolkata, settled in Delhi, where she resumed work on a projected TV series for a Bengali station. The series, called Doohshahobash, which means something like Difficult Cohabitations, is about a Hindu family of three sisters who confront various kinds of gender oppression. The station ran a huge advertising campaign, plastering Taslima’s face on billboards around Kolkata, and the series was to be broadcast in December.
But suddenly, on December 20th, everything ground to a halt when a coalition of 22 Islamist groups went to the government of West Bengal, now led by the Trinamool Congress party. Even though they hadn’t seen any of the series, they were so certain it would offend Muslims that they insisted it should be banned; otherwise people might riot. And, like the CPI(M) before it, the Trinamool Congress caved. A station spokesperson told The Hindu, “due to external pressure we have deferred the telecast of this serial indefinitely.”
As Nasrin noted in her blog, this censorship was met by a stunning lack of protest from Kolkata’s literary community. Garga Chatterjee made a similar point in the Indian weekly Outlook: “Kolkata’s current and the erstwhile rulers, the Trinamool Congress and the CPI(M) respectively, seem to be competing with each other in setting a record on muzzling free speech at the instigation of groups in whose worldview free speech has no place. While there may be short-term electoral gain for such posturing, this race to the bottom has no winners.”
The silence of Kolkata’s literary lions may have more to do with male sexual solidarity than party politics. Nasrin is not deferential and has always been outspoken on issues of rape, child molestation, and sexual harassment. The second volume of her memoirs, Dwikhandito, was banned in Kolkata, allegedly because it violated Muslim sentiments, but she told me in 2005 that the real reason was because she named names about sexual harassment and relationships within the literary elite. She recently accused a well known Delhi intellectual, Sunil Gangopadhyay, of taking advantage of his position to harass young women writers. Public discussion of this kind of thing is relatively new in India, where a law against workplace sexual harassment was just passed in April 2013, and a young journalist’s story of being assaulted in an elevator by her editor at the muckraking paper Tehelka made headlines in November.
A democracy’s commitment to freedom of expression can be measured by how it treats two groups of people: those of such low status that they have no voice, and those who push the limits of acceptable speech. There is no need to protect those who are powerful and those who never offend. Protesting gender-based censorship is part of mobilizing against rape and sexual harassment, for women’s freedom of expression and movement are related, and if either is limited to what does not offend, it will not exist.
Public secular space, on the internet and on the streets, in intellectual fora and on TV, is essential to the health of civil society. This space must be as accessible to women and atheists as to men and the pious. That means that men—including Kolkata intellectuals and US bloggers—should defend women’s right to a public voice, and women should be able to speak publicly without fear of violence. And if these women then offend against male amour-propre, hey, as Virginia Woolf said in 1929, that’s part of free speech.
Jan 29 2014
Guest blogger today is Suruchi Mazumdar. She is a doctoral candidate at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore and currently a visiting fellow at the University of Pennsylvania. She wrote about the banning of the TV drama series written by me.
‘The launch of Dusshohobash (painful co-existence), a Bengali serial written by Taslima Nasreen, was cancelled by a privately-run Bengali news channel, following objections raised by Muslim groups in Kolkata. The show, based on stories penned by Nasreen, was not about religion but promised to narrate tales of women’s struggle for rights and protest against issues like dowry and rape, condemnation of which are non-controversial at best in the current socio-political milieu. The Muslim groups in Kolkata are in favour of banning writings by exiled author Nasreen who on numerous occasions in the past had drawn the ire of religious leaders for alleged criticism of Islam. The local police was apparently apprehensive that the television serial, which was aggressively promoted, would provoke social unrest. The silence of the ruling party and the opposition in West Bengal come as no surprise. The reluctance to offend fundamentalist groups is politically motivated. But what is baffling is the silence of our liberal progressive elites. The same intellectuals who would otherwise miss no opportunity to condemn and burst in outrage when individuals are persecuted in the name of religion are miraculously numb this time.
Why is it that intellectuals who readily extend public support to SAR Geeliani, for instance – the Delhi University professor who was falsely implicated and later acquitted in the Indian Parliament attack case – are carefully cautious when an exiled woman author’s voice is casually stifled, lest religious sentiments are offended?
Throughout her literary career Nasreen has been vocal about different forms of violence, oppressions and discriminations against women that are rampant in the subcontinent and often patronised by religions. In 2007 she was ousted from Kolkata at the initiative of the then-CPIM-led government that apparently feared unrest over enraged Muslim religious group’s demands of her expulsion from the country. Nasreen was forced to leave her home country Bangladesh in the early 1990s after Islamic religious groups put a price on her head on charges of blasphemy. She has has remained uncompromising in her scathing criticisms of all religions – and not just Islam.
Issues such as Geelani’s (a Kashmiri Muslim) prolonged persecution in the hands of the Indian state or brutal rapes, molestation and murders of minorities in the wake of recent riots in Muzaffarnagar rightly deserve outrage, protests and demands of sentencing that have been raised time and again from sections of the civil society. The provocative criticisms of the failings of Indian democracy and the weaknesses of the country’s institutionalised secularism that emerge from certain pockets of our public sphere are indispensable, especially in the face of rampant persecution of religious and ethnic minorities, an ugly reality in India.
However, the issue is that the moral righteousness somehow falls short when Islamic clerics – as self-proclaimed representatives of a community – are easily provoked by a woman’s free voice, threaten public disorder and the political class and law enforcement agencies meekly give in. It is a different matter though that as to what extent the leaders of a few Islamic groups of Kolkata could be said to stand for Muslims of whole West Bengal. The fear that ordinary Muslims feel brutally hurt by Nasreen’s writing also seems strange – the majority of the Muslim population, at least in Kolkata, are predominantly Hindi-speaking and certainly cannot be said to be readers of Bengali author Nasreen.
The progressive intellectuals of India face a kind of moral/ political dilemma on the issue of Islamic extremists’ contention with women’s emancipation and rights. The infringement of individual/ women’s rights* could be confused with cultural rights of the minority. That could offer moral justification needed to remain silent in case of violations by radical Islamic organisations. Thus activists of the radical left who stand in unison with Islamic religious groups to denounce violence on the Rohingyas fail to raise a voice when leaders of the same groups openly implicate women for sexual crimes. This amounts to no less than a sense of misplaced secularism that encourages one to be patronising towards and forgiving of a religion’s infringement of individual rights, which would be reflective of being sensitive towards a community’s supposed feeling of being offended.
*(Here, I choose to interpret the word “rights” rather broadly by moving beyond definitions set by Western organisations and agencies that set the criteria and decide the terms of what must be known as human rights across diverse peoples and regions. In this context, by “rights” I mean Muslim women’s consent, agency and conscious preferences.)
Such a sense of secularism, however, is not without a history and context. One needs to consider the global xenophobia against Islam that can be said to have intensified under the patronage of an American military state and a global war against terror. Closer home in the subcontinent, the compulsions are no less pressing – the rise of the Hindu right and its growing political might have been a discomforting political reality over the past few decades. Post-independent India has been no stranger to large-scale massacre of minorities like anti-Sikh riots of 1984. But massive riots against Muslims in Bombay and Gujarat, being conducted under the behest of a communal ideology, were interpreted as a threat to India’s secular democratic fabric. Defending Muslims seems only understandable under such political and cultural urgencies. But it is a different matter to be politically lenient towards a framework of ideas that could lend Muslim organisations the justification to publicly pronounce death on those seen as heretic, discourage women’s education and equal rights or dictate women’s clothing.
It is a concern that right-wing groups in India and elsewhere have time and again hijacked the argument of gender equity to stoke anti-Muslim sentiments. In the Anglo-American world this has even worked as a common Western imperialist argument used to stir Islamophobia. But there could be a strong rebuttal at least to India’s Hindu right-wing voices that dare profile one religion as especially opposed to gender rights: The mention of female foeticide (through sex selective abortion, mostly common among caste Hindus in northern and central India) should be enough to silence such morally defunct voices.
The global urgency of challenging intolerance of Islam abets a home-grown cause – the need to counter perceived persecution of Muslim minorities whose existence seems particularly threatened with the political rise of the Hindu right. Besides, it is no less meaningful for leftist liberals particularly that over the past decade the only confrontation to American military might came in the form of Islamic insurgency. Azar Nafisi in a famous 2003-book, Reading Lolita in Tehran, vividly narrated how left liberals and pro-revolution activists of Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime in Iran made a common cause with anti-American/ anti-Western imperialism sentiments in the aftermath of the Iranian revolution of 1979. Nafisi’s book is about an all-women group’s clandestine sessions of reading Western literature, which was perceived as morally inappropriate in post-revolution Iran; the issue of wearing veil runs as a concurrent theme in the book.
Under these circumstances being lenient towards Islamic fundamentalists who stifle free speech or prescribe sex-segregated seating arrangements in political rallies and universities stands for a certain political correctness. This correctness – when stretched a little too far – translates to a new political orthodoxy that is not too uncommon in present times. This orthodoxy is best expressed when any criticism of Islamic fanaticism is interpreted as expression of Islamophobia and often amounts to a political stand and casual public posturing of such stand. A great example would be when liberal progressives in India vociferously express solidarity through “likes” and “shares” on Facebook as Stephen Hawking announces a decision to boycott an academic conference scheduled to be hosted by Israel’s president. While such posturing is hardly problematic, our selective silence and selective outrage is unflattering, especially if a politically-conscious citizenry is seen as something that democratic societies must aspire for.’
Jan 27 2014
A woman was gang raped on the orders of a village council. Her crime? She fell in love with a man outside her community.
A WOMAN was gang-raped by 13 men on the orders of a village council in eastern India as punishment for apparently having an affair.
The council ordered the horrific penalty to be carried out in a village in West Bengal state on Tuesday night after the 20-year-old woman was discovered with a man from another community, a senior officer said.
“The girl was gang-raped for having an affair with a youth of another community and failing to pay the fine which was imposed by the village council,” district police superintendent C. Sudhakar told AFP.
“The head of the village council held an urgent meeting in the village square on Tuesday when the girl and her lover were called,” Sudhakar said.
“The girl and her lover were tied to two separate trees and fined 25,000 rupees each as a fine for having an affair,” he said.
“As the parents of the girl, who were also present at the meeting, expressed their inability to pay the fine, the head of the village council ordered that she should be raped by the villagers as punishment,” he said.
The man apparently involved with the girl was freed after he agreed to pay the fine within a week, he said.
The woman was recovering from the attack in a hospital.
Last month, India marked the first anniversary of the death of the 23-year-old student who was gang-raped in New Delhi on a moving bus, in an attack that sent shock waves across the nation.
Despite tougher laws and efforts to change attitudes to women in India’s deeply patriarchal society, the number of reported sex crimes continues to rise.
It is actually our fault that we live with our oppressors, abusers, rapists, murderers.
Jan 14 2014
We have been witnessing Islamic barbarism all over the world. Islam says apostates must be killed. So, the believers of Islam kill apostates.
What about peace loving moderate Muslims? Do they think it is all right to criticize Muhammad? No, they do not. They also believe apostates should be punished.
I wonder who gave Muhammad and his Islam immunity from criticism?
On Friday January 3rd, the Nouadibou gendarmerie brigade arrested twenty-eight year old Mauritanian Cheikh Ould Mohamed M’Kheitir. The young accountant and blogger is to be tried for lack of respect to prophet Muhammad and for apostasy. The latter is punishable by death in Mauritania. Although Sharia law is enforced in the country, death sentences have not been applied by the government since the 1980s.
According to Article 306 of the Mauritanian penal code, “Unless they have repented, every person guilty of the crime of apostasy (Zandagha) shall be put to death.”
Cheikh Ould Mohamed M’Kheitir published an article titled “Religion, Religiosity and Blacksmiths” on the Mauritanian website Aqlame. Although it was posted anonymously, the authorities somehow managed to obtain his name. The editor of Aqlame later tried to absolve himself of editorial responsibility by claiming that he had not read the article prior to its publication, and that he immediately deleted it amid angry comments and reactions.
The article’s aim was to partly blame the deeply hierarchical structure of Mauritanian society on traditions dating back to the times of prophet Muhammad. More specifically, Cheikh Ould Mohamed M’Kheitir deplored the fact that the social class he belongs to – the Blacksmiths – was not permitted socio-economic promotion due to ancient traditions. The blogger also reportedly criticized Muhammad and his companions for some of their decisions during Islam’s holy wars. Despite the fact that he issued a public written apology in which he insisted that he never meant to denigrate the person of the prophet, the blogger could not escape the wrath of public outrage.
First, his family members wrote and co-signed a letter in which they basically disown him unless he repents. The letter reads:
“It does look like the foolish modernists, secularists and atheists are still attempting to derail us from the true path after their Jewish and hypocrite masters failed to do so. […] The author of the article must be sponsored by some outside forces. He equated his infallible religion with the rest of humanity’s beliefs and falsely accused our prophet of racism and favoritism. This is not surprising from someone who seeks knowledge from those who hate Allah and his prophet peace be upon him. […] We call upon society to denounce any individual who adopts a similar stance.”
In addition, the streets of Nouadibou witnessed an escalation of clashes between angry mobs and the police. Taking place in front of the court where Cheikh Ould Mohamed M’Kheitir is supposed to be tried, the protests turned violent, forcing the authorities to reinforce security presence around the tribunal. The protesters expressed their anger at the amount of time the justice system is taking to prosecute the blogger, accusing it of being soft. Mauritanian online press outlets followed suit by praising “the large crowds from all walks of life” who “even discarded their professional duties” (!) in order to publicly condemn the blogger. They also reported the numerous appeals from “imams, scholars and professors” to execute Cheikh Ould Mohamed M’Kheitir. Preacher Abi Ould Ali said he would pay 4000 Euros to anyone who kills the blogger.
Such outpouring of public anger is only part of a wave of Islamic radicalism that has been building up in Mauritania for the last weeks. Mauritanian activists confirm that in collaboration with Salafists, members of Tawassoul (Mauritanian Islamist party) have been organizing an undercover Facebook witch hunt against their political enemies. In addition, public opinion has been flooded with calls for parents to better “monitor” their children. Mauritanian families were reportedly visited by ad-hoc committees who advised them to silence their adult sons and daughters. The latter are targeted disproportionally, as evidenced by the orchestrated campaign of condemnation against actress Laila Moulay for appearing unveiled in a videoclip.
On January 10th, after a week’s silence, the Mauritanian government added its voice to the ongoing persecution against the blogger. Facing angry protesters after the Friday prayer, president Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz said: “We will apply God’s law on whoever insults the prophet, and whoever publishes such an insult.” This was in line with the quasi-unanimous condemnation of Cheikh Ould Mohamed M’Kheitir by political parties. The case is putting the Mauritanian government in a tough spot. If it does not apply the death penalty, it infuriates a conservative public that it can barely contain – as evidenced by the violent clashes with the police. If it does apply the death penalty, it breaks with an unwritten rule of avoiding executions, even against terrorists responsible for civilian deaths. Cheikh Ould Mohamed M’Kheitir will then be a blogger treated more harshly than terrorists are.
Shunned by his relatives and the rest of Mauritanian society, the blogger had three days to retract his sayings (the Muslim ultimatum for repention). His apology was apparently not enough in the eyes of his detractors. The tragedy of his case is that he is totally isolated at home and abroad. There appears to be no condemnation yet from international watchdogs of the unhuman treatment he is being subjected to. It is thus very hard to be optimistic regarding his future. Cheikh Ould Mohamed M’Kheitir has however committed no crime worthy of social isolation or the death penalty. All he did was to harmlessly express his opinion on a social matter. His ordeal is yet another example of the danger Islamists pose to individual freedoms: they would rather have free minds dead than argue with them.
I do not think there is any reason to love Islam. But there are millions of reasons to leave Islam.
Jan 11 2014
1. There is renewed efforts by some religious fundamentalist groups demanding your expulsion from India. Do you get a feeling of deja vu?
Ans — Yes I do get a feeling of deja vu. They have been issuing fatwas against me since 1993. In this part of the world, fatwas are contagious. If a fatwa is issued against you and if the fanatics can get away with it, they become more emboldened and consequently gain the will to issue more fatwas. I became an unfortunate victim of religious fanaticism. In a democratic country where fatwas are illegal, fanatics who set price on people’s head walk away as happy men. They have never been questioned or confronted; on the contrary they have consistently been courted by so-called guardians of democracy. Rather, I was thrown out of my country and forced out of the state which I considered my second home. In the meantime, I have kind of got used to fatwas. I would most likely continue to get harassed, threatened, expelled and killed by the fanatics for the rest of my life. I am not afraid of them. Come what may, I would never compromise with them and I would never be silenced.
I am a writer. I write books on humanism, feminism, human rights, equality and justice. My writings are to encourage women to fight for their rights and freedom, and to change the patriarchal mindset. I have written 38 books. I am one of the very few authors who have twice received the Ananda purashkar, the most prestigious award for Bengali literature in India. Why should an award winning, bestselling author, who has won numerous accolades from international literary and human rights organisations, be expelled from a country? Simply because some anti-women and anti-free speech fatwabaaz goons want to expel her for their own misogynistic interests?
The government of Bangladesh has been preventing me from entering my country since 1994. India is the only country in the subcontinent where I can live and be in touch with my language, heritage and cultural roots. This is the only other nation which has a populace who speak my native tongue, and read my books untranslated. My roots are Indian, but because of the certain political blunders the country was divided. I am now considered an outsider, and even though the war in Bangladesh in 1971 proved that two nation theory was wrong, my outsider status has not been withdrawn. As an atheist, I never can accept the barbed wire between Bangladesh and India that is based on religion.
I feel India is my home, just as I feel Bangladesh to be my home. I have dedicated my life for the secularization of the society, then why should I be expelled from a secular democratic society which is supposed to believe in freedom of expression?
2. What do you think sparked this latest bout of Taslima phobia?
Ans— They never can say what exactly makes them angry with me. Every now and then, the Islamic fanatics claim that I hurt their sentiments, so I must be deported, or killed. None of them read my books or show any such evidence from my writings that is not the truth. Should we not tell the truth only because the truth hurts their sentiments? We know that they always do it for their own political gain, and it has nothing to do with my writings or sayings.
It is dangerous if the government tries to deny the freedom of expression of people in order to protect the sentiments of a group of people who do not believe in democracy, and the people’s rights to express their opinions.
3. You had hopes of returning to Kolkata after Mamata Banerjee came to power. But she banned even the telecast of the serial, Duhshahobas, based on your writings. How do you see the fabled ‘paribartan’ in West Bengal?
Ans—There may have been many paribartans in West Bengal, but there is no paribartan in my case for sure. The previous government threw me out of West Bengal and banned my book, the current government does not allow me to enter the state, banned the inauguration of my book and forced a private TV channel to cancel my mega serial. It seems the current government is following the footsteps of the previous government, especially when it is about me.
4. Is it a global phenomenon that more and more space is being ceded to fundamentalists in all spheres, including politics, art or even international relations? Is self-censorship growing among authors, film makers etc?
Ans — Islamic fanatics want to make the world darul Islam, the land of Islam, as it is the ultimate purpose of Islam. They have been attacking intellectuals, thinkers, humanists, feminists and whoever is critical of Islam, and there is indeed more and more leverage gained by these intolerant groups over various spheres of civil society.
Self censorship is the worst form of censorship. Governments have been banning my books, the editors have been censoring my writings, but I try my best not to censor myself. In countries where writers, artists, film makers’ freedom of expression get constantly violated, it is obvious that they would self censor themselves. And such societies are bound to become sick if this continues. If religious fundamentalists decide what should people read, and draw, and say, and think and the authorities violate the freedom of expression of writers and artists, then it is not really a secular democracy, rather it is well on its way to become a theocratic democracy. This is an alarming trend.
Dec 30 2013
I write books on women’s rights and humanism. But the fanatics won’t let me live. Just got this news. 200,000 ulemas will sign the petition demanding my deportation. Then 2 million Muslims in urs celebration will get crazy to throw me out of the country or to kill me in the name of Islam. It is so easy for Islamists to kill and destroy human lives. They only need to think of Allah and his messenger in order to become cold blooded murderers.
A Muslim cleric from UP, who had filed a police complaint against Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen for allegedly hurting religious sentiments, is now at the forefront of a campaign demanding that she be expelled from India for spreading “anti-Muslim feeling.”
“We will start a campaign for expulsion of Taslima Nasreen. She is against our religion and has hurt our clerics,” said Hasan Raza Khan alias Noori Miyan, son of the ‘sajjadanasheen’ of Bareilly’s Aala Hazrat Dargah, Maulana Subhan Raza Khan.
He said the demand will be raised during the last day of annual Urs-e-Razwi of Imam Ahmed Raza, commonly known as Aala Hazrat, in Bareilly on Monday.
Noori was also felicitated by Raza Academy of Mumbai during the urs on Saturday for taking “the initiative to lodged the case against Taslima.”
Noori had lodged the case with Bareilly Kotwali on December 4 against Taslima for using abusive language against Muftis and hurting the feelings of Muslims.
“We will collect signatures of nearly two lakh ulemas demanding expulsion of Taslima. Nearly 20 lakh people come during the urs celebrations and we will put forward our demand before them,” he said.
Noori said Taslima is a foreigner who is “spoiling the atmosphere of our country by spreading anti Muslim feeling”. “I don’t see any point in Taslima being given asylum in our country. She should be immediately asked to leave,” he added.
Earlier, Noori’s uncle Tauqeer Raza Khan, the chief of Ittehad-e-Millat Council (IMC) had allegedly announced a reward of Rs 5 lakh on Taslima’s head if she remains in India.
Taslima had reacted after Aam Admi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal had met Tauqeer Raza before Delhi Assembly elections soliciting his support.
Dec 26 2013
Garga Chatterjee is the guest blogger today. He is a brain scientist at MIT, USA. Here he analyzes the shrinking space for free expression in West Bengal, India.
Many Bengalis take a lot of pride about Kolkata, as a centre for free thought and artistic expression. Kolkata, the so-called ‘cultural capital’, has demonstrated the increasing emptiness of the epithet, yet again. Taslima Nasreen, one of the most famous Bengali authors alive, had scripted a TV serial named ‘Doohshahobash’ ( Difficult cohabitaions) portraying 3 sisters and their lives – standing up to kinds of unjust behaviour that are everyday realities for the lives of women in the subcontinent. Nasreen has long lent a powerful voice to some of the most private oppressions that women face, often silently. The private channel where the serial was slotted ran a vigorous and visible advertising campaign – Nasreen’s name still has serious pull among Bengalis and the channel knew it. Nasreen had made it clear that the serial had nothing to do with religion. However that was not enough for the self-appointed ‘leaders’ of the Muslims of West Bengal who issued warnings to the effect that the serial not be aired. The commencement of the serial, sure to be a hit and a commercial success for the channel, has now been postponed indefinitely. One can imagine the pressure the producers and broadcasters have faced that led to the shelving of a potential runaway commercial success. As in the recent incident of Salman Rushdie being prevented from coming to Kolkata due to the protest by similar characters, one can be sure of the kind of role the Trinamool Congress government and its law enforcement agencies had in this affair. If the government is to be believed, it had no role in the criminal farce that is being played out unchecked. Muzzling free speech and right to expression does not always need written orders from the government. A phone call here, a verbal order there – these are typically enough.
Nasreen has been living in New Delhi since 2011, after being hounded out of Kolkata by the CPI(M) led government on the instigation of Muslim groups threatening ‘unrest’. The pathetic reality of the lives of ordinary women in the subcontinent and the extraordinary oppression meted out to them, especially due to certain religious systems, have been the single most important theme of her writing. Steeped broadly and deeply in the cultural fabric of Bengal, the specific socio-geographical setting of much of her work is in the Muslim-majority nation-state of Bangladesh. Hence, in her earlier writings, Islam primarily represented the ugly face of religious majoritarianism. However, those who have cared to read her corpus, know very well that she has been an equal-opportunity truth-teller, castigating both Hindu and Muslim religious practices and ideologies.
Taslima Nasreen is a daughter of the subcontinent and of the world. Islamists in Bangladesh wanted her head and made life miserable for her. After a few years in the West, she returned to West Bengal. I say ‘returned’ as it was an inalienable part of her cultural homeland. In Kolkata too, she lived in the face of constant death-threats there too. After her forcible ejection from Kolkata, she has never been allowed back, though she remains extremely interested in relocating back. One would think that the culture of issuing death-threats to one feels one’s religion has been slighted by is alien to Bengal – which has, for centuries, been the ground Zero of religious syncretism as well as tolerance to so-called deviants of all hues. It is indeed sad that this alien culture of extremism of relatively recent import has managed to gain the upper-hand so as to force the government of the day to pander to these elements at huge cost to the social and cultural fabric of West Bengal.
Who exactly are these vocal opposers of Taslima Nasreen’s serial being shown publicly? Whenever one has self-appointed spokespersons doing the shrillest speaking, it is useful to study their antecedents. Abdul Aziz of Milli Ittehad Parishad and Mohammad Quamruzzaman of the All Bengal Minority Youth Federation are two prime examples who have been extraordinarily active in running the Taslima-denounication industry in West Bengal. Both these organizations share another distinction. They led a mass-meeting earlier this year in Kolkata protesting the punishment of Islamist leaders of Bangladesh who had directly committed crimes against humanity during the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War. Thus those who defended rapists and mass murderers of 1971 (the victims were Bengalis, of whom a significant proportion were Muslims) have taken upon the mantle of community guardianship of Muslims in West Bengal. It cannot be clearer what kind of Muslim interest these folks represent. To even consider that such elements represent Muslim interests of West Bengal is tantamount to insulting the intelligence and humanity of the Mohammedans of the state.
Kolkata’s intelligentsia and youth, once known to take to the streets and chant songs to protest the muzzling of Paul Robeson, a black-American singer and artist, has had nothing but silence to offer on this one. The Trinamool Congress rulers and the erstwhile CPI(M) rulers have set a record of competing with each other on muzzling free speech on the instigation of groups in whose worldview, free speech has no place. While there may be short-term electoral gain for such posturing, this race to the bottom has no winners. The loser is the idea of a free and democratic society where dialogue and understanding is privileged over violence to ‘solve’ differences. In effect, such groups aspire for a society where there are no differences – no diversity of thought, expression, living and being. Nothing is more alien to the human condition than that. Gods only can help a society where governmental policy is dictated by sociopaths, unless a critical mass stands up to publicly state that enough is enough. Does the right to be offended take precedence over the right to free speech? If yes, we are in sad and dark times.
When insulting books, gods and other creatures has become the touchstone of ‘community leadership’, one might do well to remember the words of Kaji Nazrul Islam, the fiery poet of all of Bengal who is increasingly being packaged into a ‘Muslim’ poet – ‘Manush enechhe grontho, grontho aneni manush kono’ (Man has produced books, no book has ever produced a man). There is nothing truer than man himself and free speech is an pre-condition for that truth to shine forth, in its myriad hues. It is high time we realized that.
Dec 22 2013
It is an interview.
It’s hard to miss her in Calcutta these days. She beams at passers-by from king-size hoardings at several busy junctions, anxiously marking her “return” to Bengal after six years.
But Taslima Nasreen is not returning to the city. Not in person, certainly — thanks to embargoes on her travelling and living in India. And not on television either, which had been promoting her as the writer of a mega serial that was to have been aired from December 19.
Despite the grand announcements, the show has been stalled. And Nasreen is furious. “Hating Taslima is an essential part of politics in the subcontinent. I feel pity for those who need to violate a writer’s rights to get votes,” she tweeted. “Whatever I write is hated by ignorant anti-women, anti-human rights bigots. Because they are afraid of the truth and the power of the pen,” said another tweet.
She walks into the drawing room-cum-study of her apartment located in an upmarket area of Delhi, where she has been living since 2008, full of misgivings. Just days before the serial was called off, she’d heard that the Calcutta police had met the producers of the serial.
“Some bigoted individuals asked for a ban and the state acquiesced — I don’t think this will happen even in Saudi Arabia,” she says. “But fundamentalists are anti-women and anti-freedom of expression, and for political reasons the government might side with them. But why are the people in Bengal silent,” she asks.
Dressed in grey winter pants, a black sweater and a blue embroidered stole, the maverick writer looks younger than her 51 years with her bright eyes and dishevelled short crop. She sinks into a reclining chair with a blue iPad in her hand. All around her are bookshelves, all packed with books. Stickers screaming messages such as “Atheism cures religious terrorism” are pasted on the shelves. Honorary certificates bestowed by foreign institutions, framed beautifully, adorn a whole wall in the study.
It has been almost 20 years since she was exiled from Bangladesh for “anti-Islam” writings and six years since she was ousted from West Bengal following communal disturbances in Calcutta’s Ripon Street. It was thought that she would return — in the shape of the serial called Dusahobas or unbearable co-existence, which was to be aired on Aakash Aath and promoted as a serial radically different from the regular saas-bahu stories.
This is the second time the soap has been stalled. She began writing it in 2006, when several episodes were also shot. “But then the 2007 drama happened and I was summarily thrown out of the city on November 22 that year,” she says, referring to the Ripon street violence. “That brought the production to a standstill.”
She had then urged her producers not to give up on the series merely because she had been ousted by the Bengal government, which cited her as a problem for law and order. “Why should the producers, or any creative person for that matter, be afraid of negative forces? These are just fringe elements who would oppose anyone who talks about gender equality and social change because they are misogynists.”
She cites the treatment meted out to reformists Vidyasagar and Raja Rammohan Roy by “anti-progress groups” for their pro-women measures. “The same thing is happening to me — I speak about new ideas, changing society, gender equality and humanism.”
What riles her more is the lack of protest in Calcutta. “This is a dangerous sign — if writers, intellectuals and other creative people keep quiet after this, something is wrong with society. Society is on the path of decline — this is what the silence signifies.
“But intellectuals do not keep their mouths shut when Hindu fanatics attack writers or artistes, or even when Muslim fanatics attack male writers such as Salman Rushdie. Misogynistic society shows solidarity towards victims, provided the victims are male, macho or anti-feminist,” she says.
Nasreen alleges that her ouster from Calcutta was premeditated. “Few people know that I was actually put under house arrest for about four months before the November incident,” she says, adding that she had to leave her 7 Rawdon Street residence in Calcutta with just her laptop and a one-way ticket to Rajasthan.
“From August that year, I was repeatedly asked by the Left Front government to leave the country. They even used to send the then police commissioner to coax me; he asked me to go to the jungles of Madhya Pradesh.” Nirbasan (Exile), the seventh part of her autobiography, documents her ouster from the city where she lived from 2004 to 2007.
She stresses that the Ripon Street incident was not a “Muslim uprising” against her. “The original plan was to agitate against the violence in Nandigram,” she says, referring to the 2007 police firing in which several villagers were killed. “The outburst was actually against the government for doing little for the community. The CPI(M) was losing popularity at that time — so they wanted to use me to score some political brownie points.”
She says she was “deeply hurt” by the then chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya’s behaviour. “I tried to meet him at that time, but he didn’t meet me. But Jyotibabu (ex-chief minister) supported me right through the end. He was also against banning my books in Bengal,” she adds.
Nasreen believes that the present state government is also following in the footsteps of the Leftists. “It never criticised the way the Left Front government wronged me.”
The author believes that her “persecution” in West Bengal began in 2003 when her book Dwikhandito (Split into Two) was banned by the state government. The book, it was alleged, was “anti-Islamic”, which was the brush that she was tarred with in Bangladesh.
Nasreen — who fled Bangladesh in 1994 after threats to her life — is, however, happy to have found a platform for her views in her motherland. She has been writing for a daily called Bangladesh Pratidin.
“I write a bimonthly column for the paper. I write generally on women’s issues, politics, etc. But I have been requested by editors not to write anything on religion,” she says. “For 20 years or so, they were afraid to touch me. But now I can reach out to my fans in Bangladesh.”
However, Nasreen is worried about Pan- Islamists, believers in Muslim brotherhood, who, she says, have been “growing at an alarming rate” in Bangladesh. “They are far more radical than what they were in 1971,” she says. At the same time, she is concerned about the path being taken by the “secularists” of Bangladesh.
“They are rejoicing at Abdul Kader Mullah’s death,” she says, referring to a Bangladeshi Islamist leader who was hanged earlier this month for war crimes in 1971. “But my point is that death penalty to such people won’t solve anything unless a forceful attempt is made to secularise society.”
Her “secularist fans” in Bangladesh, she adds, are “shocked” by her opposition to the death penalty. “They say these are the same kind of people who drove you out of your homeland. So how could I write against the death penalty,” she says. “But I forgive these fundamentalists — I want them to change and be better human beings. I want jails to be classrooms where such people could learn humanism.”
She, however, is in favour of banning the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami party because she feels it works “exactly like a terrorist organisation” in Bangladesh. “They kill people — take blogger Rajib Haider’s death,” she says. Haider was a Bangladeshi anti-fundamentalist who was allegedly killed by a group associated with the Jamaat.
She is critical of Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s “so-called anti-Islamist” stance. “If Hasina was truly anti-fundamentalist, she should have first brought Taslima Nasreen back to Bangladesh,” she says.
These days, Nasreen has found new a forum for her views — the Internet. “I rely on Twitter to update myself on developments around the world. You see, I don’t really have many platforms to express myself these days,” she rues.
She also blogs on topics that range from violence and politics to science. She has been spearheading an atheist movement in Calcutta. “It’s called Dharmamukto Manabbadi Mancha and it’s unique because all its atheist members — 400 or so — are Muslims working for gender equality and other issues,” she says, adding that her blogs sometimes attract 1-2 lakh readers a day.
Her tweets too have landed her in legal wrangles. Two cases — one in Uttar Pradesh and the other in Bihar — have been lodged against her. “The complaint from UP was against a tweet saying those who issue fatwas and rewards on beheading were anti-Constitution, anti-women and anti-freedom of expression,” says Nasreen, who has had three fatwas issued against her in Bangladesh and five in India so far.
“What have I said wrong? These people who issue fatwas are roaming scot-free while I am the one who is confined to one place,” she says, adding India’s home ministry has helped her with the cases.
She hasn’t stopped tweeting, though. “I will write more tweets. Let me see how people can stop me.”
Does she ever feel like giving it all up in India and settling down in the West? “I travel to Europe and America frequently. But I want to stay in India for the sake of this country,” she says. “I want to tell the world I can stay in India because this country is a true pillar of secularism and a standard bearer of freedom of expression in the subcontinent.”
Is anyone listening?