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

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The Independent Online
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."