Is anyone listening?

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?


  1. Caricature says

    This random student is listening, for what it’s worth. I suppose all I have to say is that people like you are a true inspiration.

  2. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    Well I can’t hear a thing but I can certainly read this!

    Well said Taslima and keep up the good fight – best wishes and please let me know if there’s anything I and others can do to help.

  3. KaKuBh says

    There is a proverb “Hit the iron when it is hot.” If we want to hit fadamentalism based cold society, it lead to loss the talent like Rajib Hayder. There are a lot of so- called scholar like Dr. Shamsher Ali who are trying to prove “the earth is plane” “the sun is moves round the earth”….and he became a VC of a University ,they are making an iron cold society. So how to rebuild the system?”We are to make a forum at first in view of establishing worldwide secular education.”The forum can creat pressure on UN. .1.Higher educational certificate should be issued from a unique international organisation/Board. 2. Primary education should be secular worldwide. 3. At least 60% syllabus will be common wordwide. and 4. Educational expense will be borne by UN worldwide.

    • Wasee says

      Rajik Haider is a talent, true. But his approach is completely wrong. Islam is the greatest thing. Everything of Islam is right. Fight againt those who cant follow islam. not againts Islam

      • UJJAL says

        @ Wasee – You believe your religion is the ‘greatest thing’. Very well, remain happy. If I think it is the dirtiest thing, why should you NOT respect my decision also as I had for your’s. Why should believers in your religion want to become murderers if someone dislikes your religion ? Why have you used the word ‘fight’, in your post ? Does your religion teach to ‘fight’ or ‘love’ ?
        Can you show ONE example in your religious book or on earth where your religion has spoken good about other religion ?
        A straight answer is expected, NOT beating the bush.
        And yes, no problem if still you choose to ‘fight’.

  4. says

    Thank you for what you are doing Taslima – people ARE listening, even though sometimes it may seem like you are all alone, rest assured you are not.

    If you weren’t who you were – writing as you do – I would remain ignorant of much of what you talk about. You are making a big difference to me!!!

    As always, if I can help in any small way, simply contact me and if I possibly can, I will do what I’m able to assist.

  5. says

    Also –

    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.

    That made me laugh. Oh yes, that’s Taslima! The blue iPad is ALWAYS in her hand. 😀

  6. Katherine Woo says

    You are a brave woman standing up to the entrenched insanity of religious privilege. You should have more support, but it seems like most Western leftists and non-theists would rather just look away than take a stand on this resurgence of religion.

  7. Wasee says

    Taslima, you are fighting against the wrong enemy. Islam is the best thing in the world. Only Islam can bring peace and love in the society – specially to women. Don’t take my word for it – do a survey on a Muslim country women, on those who completely know Islam, what Islam is about. NOT Those person who are just blind followers.
    I gurantee that atleast 90% will say that Islam is the best thing that happened to them. Islam is love & peace. Before writting againts something – Please understand its core concept first.
    I’m only 16 and I understand what Islam is about, NOWHERE in Islam it’s right to neglect women. It’s a mistake most Bangalees do. Being so much older than me and more experienced, if you cant understand Islam, I have nothing to say.

  8. rnilsson says

    I hope Wasee will come to his senses once he grows to be a man. Perhaps then he will heed his own advice: “Before writting againts something – Please understand its core concept first.” But somehow I doubt it. Sincerely.

  9. Jockaira says

    Wasee makes that same mistaken assumption that so many theists make in arguing against atheism, that the atheists (in this case, Taslima) are ignorant of, or perhaps have not given theism a fair chance to prove itself.

    The vast majority of atheists and apostate Muslims were raised in Muslim societies by Muslim families, and grew up with a devoutly abiding faith in Islam and its prophet, Mohammed. Taslima’s circumstances were the same, loving parents with an extended family steeped in Islamic tradition. Early on in her young adulthood her high intelligence caused her to ask questions about Islam that any normal human would ask, but that most when not getting any answers, simply forget the questions and go on to live a devout life.

    Taslima did not forget. Some answers were frustratingly contradictory to human feelings while others were simply contradictory to good sense or the observed reality of the physical world and its people around her. She gave Islam the chance that Wasee demands of her, but being a woman, she soon saw that Islam was a male-dominated and controlled religion relegating women exclusively to support roles for men.

    So Wasee, Taslima has given a large portion of her life in attempting to live within the confines of Islam. The difference between her and millions of other women is that she had the great intelligence and good luck to be more than Islam would ever permit her to be.

    You say that a survey of “Muslim country women” would show 90% of them to believe that “Islam is the best thing that happened to them”. I say that these women are generally afraid to speak out against their oppressors and are in genuine fear of being beat up for an un-Islamic opinion, or worse, murdered by their Muslim male relatives with the active or tacit coöperation of female relatives going along with the killing to protect themselves from the same fate, and from an eternity in Hell with only Allâh for company.

    Wasee, you are only 16 years old and lack not just the experience of many years of life, but also the experience of being a woman under the yoke of Islam. You project your own perfect ideals on the theistic ideology of Islam and, so far, have not questioned it greatly. It is you who misunderstands Islam, not Taslima. She has lived it for half a century while you are only starting.

    There is an old traditional Muslim saying that “a woman’s heaven is beneath her husband’s feet.” This is your mother, your sisters, your aunts, your nieces, and someday maybe, your daughters. You can find quotations from the Qur’ân and from the ahadeeth about the place of women in Islam here.

    • UJJAL says

      @ Wasee – just read your FULL religion book, YOURSELF, not through others. Keep a dictionary beside you. You need nothing more to hate the inhumanity and barbarism that is WRITTEN, not by Taslima.


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