No simple heretic, Taslima Nasrin: Muslim zealots want her dead, the Bangladeshi government wants her behind bars. Her crime was to stand up to fundamentalists frightened by the rise of women, says Yasmin Alibhai Brown

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Dressed in flowing white robes and wearing white caps and turbans, 100,000 demonstrators from throughout Bangladesh gathered next to Dhaka's parliament building on Friday. 'There will be no place for atheists and murtads (renegades) in Bangladesh,' they proclaimed. Many carried wooden sticks, placards and banners, one of which showed a portrait of a young woman with a rope around her neck. 'Yes, yes, we want this and nothing but this,' they chanted.

Taslima Nasrin, a feminist writer, has been in hiding for two months since comments she made in a newspaper interview provoked death threats by Muslim fundamentalists. A warrant was then issued for her arrest for 'offending religious feelings'. Western artists and writers - including Salman Rushdie - have declared their support for Nasrin and the European Union has offered sanctuary. The zealots at Friday's demonstration say they will launch a jihad against the West. They describe Nasrin as 'an apostate appointed by imperial forces to vilify Islam'.

In five short years since the Rushdie affair, history has repeated itself. Depressingly, nobody seems to have learnt any lessons at all. The saga began last year when Nasrin, a 32-year-old gynaecologist and writer on women's issues, wrote a contentious novel, Lajja (Shame). It tells of Muslims in Bangladesh killing and raping members of a Hindu family following the inter-communal fighting in 1992 over the Ayodhya mosque in India.

A secular, middle-class woman, Nasrin was already emerging as a controversial figure before this crisis. Much of what she wrote was considered too sexually explicit and threatening in what is a deeply conservative society. In one poem a man was depicted as a cockroach invading her vagina. The BJP, an extremist Hindu party in India, used Lajja for anti-Muslim propaganda and this led to the banning of the book in Bangladesh.

The furore died down until June, when Nasrin was quoted (or misquoted, she claims) in the Statesman, a Calcutta newspaper, as saying that the Koran needed to be revised. The religious right, waiting to pounce on her again, called for her to be arrested and executed. The Government obligingly attempted to comply with the first demand. This, in turn, was the cue for secular liberals to take up their pens against what they saw as forces of barbarism. But this is more than a battle between obscurantism and civilisation. Important personal, national and global forces are affecting this particular confrontation.

According to Taseen Murshid, a Bangladeshi academic living in Britain, Nasrin has stepped into a trap: 'What is happening goes beyond religion or freedom of speech. Unlike the Rushdie affair, what this is really about is the political agenda of the reactionary groups like the Jamiat Islami party.

'Taslima is a stepping stone for these people. If they succeed in chopping her down, they will seek others who support a democratic secular state. It could be any of us; it could be my mother or father next. This is the beginning of a witch hunt and I think she happens to have provided them with a very useful excuse.

'The reason it has been easy to target her is because she is a well-known and popular writer. They can also point to her personal life - she's been divorced three times. It helps them too that the Government has given in so easily.'

These extreme parties resent social changes in Bangladesh. Many rural projects, for example, specifically set out to empower women while the influence of religious leaders in villages is beginning to recede.

Asian feminists feel this case has other important implications. Rahila Gupta, of Women Against Fundamentalism, who also lives in Britain, argues that it reveals not only how powerful religious fanatics are getting across the world, but the dangers of this for women.

'With the Rushdie case,' she says, 'the issue got tangled up with racism. You could not defend Rushdie without even your friends accusing you of being part of the backlash against Muslims. In the case of Taslima, there is no such confusion. The situation is less problematic. It shows that at the heart of the fundamentalist project - whether we are talking about Muslims, Hindus or Christians - is the control of women and the denial of their right to make choices or speak out. This has nothing to do with Western values.'

But others believe notions of Western 'progress' and Muslim 'backwardness' underpin and complicate this conflict. Rina, (not her real name) a London teacher, explains. 'I know that what Taslima has often said is true and necessary. So many of our men, even over here, behave abominably towards their wives, sisters and daughters. The religious leaders encourage them. 'But when you see how eagerly the Western press and intelligentsia grabs this story to prove we are all savages, you retreat and become defensive.

'We must find a way of reforming our communities without falling into these easy generalisations that the West is best or that everything about us is shamefully bad. People like Taslima do it all for the right reasons, but they don't think through the consequences of their actions or how it can rebound and take us all further into the hands of the extremists.'

Noorjehan Murshid, Taseen's mother, would agree. She edited a magazine in Bangladesh until 1990 and met Taslima Nasrin then. Her magazine, Edesh Ekal, focused on women's rights. She has written highly critical articles on the subject and, in fact, published Taslima's essays and poems.

'We welcomed what she was saying,' Noorjehan says, 'especially about male chauvinism. She was unafraid. But when she started questioning the religion itself, I felt she needed to read and think more deeply and less superficially about the subject. And while we talk about freedom, we also all have to behave responsibly. We must take care not to undermine our country and our people, but I totally disagree with these death threats.'

There is another issue here, one that will increasingly crop up where inequality between the First and Third World persists.

Third World intellectuals and artists are likely to find themselves caught between the different worlds they inhabit. On the one hand, they need the resources and credibility only the West can give, but their own communities also have expectations which may be in conflict with how these individuals wish to work, think and live.

They may be non-conformist only in the sense that their views conform to the most ill-informed prejudices of the West, or they might seek changes which seem too fast for their people. As Noorjehan says: 'We need to see things with different eyes now. In the West, with all their freedoms, they have still not found paradise. I admire the advances they have made in science, but we too have things we must be proud of. Families, society, respect, religion. If we destroy all this in the name of modernism, we will be nowhere. We must criticise, yes, but criticise the right things and in a way that carries people with us.'

In The Wretched of the Earth, Franz Fanon argued that Third World intellectuals had to go through self-discovery and 'anti-colonialism' before reaching maturity by moving back into their communities and learning to work with them.

This is impossible if they are threatened with death or pushed into exile every time they utter things that 'offend' certain interest groups. These distinctive individuals need to be nurtured by their own people, even when the messages they bring are painful or inappropriate. No group or country can develop without such challenges. Those out on the streets on Friday calling for the blood of Taslima Nasrin need to be reminded of that simple fact.

(Photographs omitted)

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