My plight is as bad as Rushdie's if he had been living in Iran

IN HER FIRST interview since defiantly returning home last month, Taslima Nasreen, the controversial Bangladeshi feminist writer, told The Independent of her anguish as Islamic fundamentalists renewed their campaign to have her executed.

Like Salman Rushdie, Taslima Nasreen, has written a novel - called Shame - and like Rushdie she is the subject of a fatwa by Islamic fundamentalists who would be glad to see her murdered. After Shame was published in 1993, they offered a reward of 100,000 taka ($2,500) to anyone who succeeded in killing her. The offer still stands.

On 14 September she flew into the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, from New York with her parents. Her mother, who is suffering from cancer of the colon, had been seeking treatment in the United States, but had been advised that she only had months left to live.

Taslima had been told repeatedly by the Bangladesh government not to attempt to return, but in the face of her mother's imminent demise she decided to risk it. "I was desperate," she told The Independent, "because I love my mother very much. Many times I asked the government if I could come back, but they never said yes. They said that if I tried to return, I would be prevented from entering the country."

In fact she passed through immigration without a hitch. But then the news hit the papers, and almost at once the fundamentalists were out on the streets again, calling for her blood. She was surprised and appalled at the reaction. "For four years I had published nothing in this country and nothing about religion. I was worried the government might deport me, but I had no idea the demonstrations would start again.

"Since I came back, more or less every day the fundamentalists have been demanding my death," she went on. The demonstrations have been smaller than four years ago, but just as fanatical. Tomorrow an alliance of Islamic groups is threatening to mount a mass picket of the Home Ministry to call for her execution.

As a result of the threats, Nasreen has been in hiding since her return. In 1994 she spent two months rarely sleeping in the same place twice. Four years on, her situation is practically unchanged.

She agreed to be interviewed only after a great deal of heart-searching, and on condition that her whereabouts remain secret. Wearing a light cotton shift, she chain-smoked throughout the interview and appeared tense and unhappy.

"I wanted to come back to my country so much," she said in the secret location to which I had to be escorted by an intermediary. "I never had a home in the four years I was in the West. The European countries were like bus stops for me - I was waiting for the bus to come home. And when I learned that my mother had terminal cancer I became desperate."

Besides the threat of murder by a religious fanatic, Nasreen also has two cases of blasphemy hanging over her. The first was left unresolved in 1994 when she took advantage of the fact that she had obtained bail to flee the country. The second, also filed in 1994, suddenly re-surfaced ten days ago.

The Dhaka General Magistrates' Court issued an arrest warrant on 24 September, but so far the police have been unable to execute it. The offence of "outraging religious feelings," a British law which dates back to 1860, is in theory un-bailable, and carries a maximum sentence of three years in jail. Ms Nasreen is now required to surrender to the court, whereupon, in theory at least, she would be held in custody until the conclusion of the trial.

But Nasreen is unrepentant. "If I told the fundamentalists that I had changed my ideas, they have said they would forgive me," she told me. But her latest book, My Girlhood, to be published internationally soon (though not in Bangladesh), which examines among other things the origin of her negative feelings about all religions, is unlikely to persuade fundamentalists she is a changed woman.

Some human rights groups in Bangladesh have issued statements calling on the government to take action against those threatening to kill her. But there has been little perceptible groundswell of support to counter the extremists. One prominent feminist, Farida Akhter, said, "Under no circumstances would we agree with the fanatics: to cut off her head is not desirable, or acceptable to anybody. But she is responsible for the fact that people are not coming forward to support her. Taslima Nasreen is not a women's movement issue, but an issue created by the international media."

With the fatwa hanging over her and mullahs waving placards in the streets, Nasreen's plight is inevitably compared to Salman Rushdie's. But she said wryly: "My situation is like Rushdie's would have been if he had been living in Iran."

In other respects, too, the writers have little in common. Rushdie has always written for an international audience.

Nasreen speaks with breathtaking directness to her fellow Bangladeshis, in Bengali. She first attained fame with her newspaper columns voicing, in an enjoyably outrageous way, the frustration and bitterness of women in Bangladesh's conservative society.

She has written books of verse and novels, too, and it was her last novel, Lajja (Shame), that catapulted her to international fame. It was her response to the orgy of communal violence across the subcontinent that followed the demolition of the Babri Masjid mosque in Ayodhya, India, by Hindu nationalists, on 6 December 1992.

Written in just a week soon afterwards, it chronicled the destruction of a family of Bangladeshi Hindus by Muslim thugs. It marked Nasreen moving on to larger, more momentous themes. Wrongly criticised for being slapdash, it is a formidable and harrowing work.

Published in February 1993, Lajja had a sensational impact in Bangladesh, becoming an instant bestseller. But in July the government quietly banned it and began removing it from shops. (It remains banned today; finding a copy in Dhaka is like buying drugs.) Two months later, an obscure religious group issued a fatwa, sentencing Nasreen to death and offering a reward for her execution.

Within weeks she became an international figure. Today, Nasreen lives under multiple threats: the fatwa, the two blasphemy cases. To show herself in public at all would be to risk being murdered by a fanatic.

Taslima Nasreen will stay in her country if she can, but the future will not be easy. Her enemies are full of passionate intensity; her supporters lack conviction. "Transgression is the key feature of Nasreen's writings," wrote Ali Riaz in his study Contextualising Taslima Nasreen. "Nasreen, being a woman, is not authorised by the society to talk about desire and sexuality... Bangladeshi feminists ... still are uncomfortable talking about Nasreen."

"I don't know where this openness comes from," Taslima Nasreen said, wonderingly, about her own difficult gift, but it means I have to be very selective about my friends... I want to stay here for my mother's sake. I don't want to leave, but if the situation gets very, very bad, I may have to. If possible, I want to live here."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Ashdown Group: Editor-in-chief - Financial Services - City, London

£60000 - £70000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Ashdown Group: Junior Application Support Analyst - Fluent German Speaker

£25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A global leader operating...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power