Bangladeshi feminist goes into hiding

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THE BANGLADESHI feminist author Taslima Nasreen, whose return to her home country earlier this week provoked the wrath of Islamic fundamentalists, has gone into hiding.

After four years in exile, she flew back to flood-ravaged Bangladesh with her mother, Eid-ul-Ara Begum, who had been having cancer treatment in New York. According to a source in the capital, Dhaka, who knows the author well, Ms Nasreen's mother has been given only a few months to live and Ms Nasreen chose to risk the fanatics' ire to be with her.

Crowds of angry Islamists are expected to pour out of the mosques today to shout slogans denouncing the doctor-turned-writer and demanding her death.

Ms Nasreen, 36, originally provoked their anger with a series of newspaper columns that had a massive following among Bengali women, urging them to assert their rights. In her novel Lajja (Shame) she attacked Muslim intolerance of Bangladesh's Hindu minority, intolerance which had resulted in the demolition of Hindu temples in tit-for-tat revenge after the demolition of a mosque in India.

The book was banned by the government of Khaleda Zia after mass demonstrations and demands for Ms Nasreen's death.

However, it was not her writings but a comment she allegedly made to an Indian journalist that forced her to flee. An Indian newspaper reported her as saying that the Koran should be rewritten. Ms Nasreen denied she had said any such thing but, in the ensuing hue and cry, Islamists offered200,000 takas (pounds 3,000) to anyone who killed her, and she was forced to leave the country. She was welcomed in Sweden.

One motive for her return, according to a friend, is that she was homesick. "She enjoyed visiting other countries, speaking at seminars and so on. But ... she loves her country," the friend said. "Her feminist themes are old-fashioned in the West, but they are really radical for Bangladesh and she had a lot of fans."

Compared with Pakistan, where the Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif recently kow-towed to Islamist groups by declaring that Islamic (Sharia) law would replace the present, largely British-derived secular code, in Bangladesh the secularists visibly have the upper hand.

It is rare, for example, to see women wearing veils. The oppression that women suffer is not so much explicitly Islamic in character as the common lot of women throughout the subcontinent. Ms Nasreen speaks eloquently to ordinary Bangladeshi housewives who, while saying their Islamic prayers five times a day, are not remotely in thrall to fundamentalist ideas.

In the preface to Lajja, Ms Nasreen wrote: "I detest fundamentalism and communalism ... The mullahs who would murder me will kill everything progressive in Bangladesh if they are allowed to prevail. It is my duty to protect my beautiful country from them, and I call on those who share my values to help me defend my right."

Ms Nasreen's next move may depend on the strength of feeling the fundamentalists are able to muster against her. Unlike the Khaleda Zia government, Bangladesh's present government, led by Sheikh Hasina, is liberal and secular in tendency.

"And now the country is busy coping with the floods," her friend said, "and many of the madrassas, the religious schools that are the hotbeds of fundamentalism, are closed or under water, so it may be a while before they can take action."

Taslima Nasreen may have timed her homecoming well.