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Fatwa is a feminist issue in Dhaka

FIRST, they said Taslima Nasreen should be hanged. Then they thought marriage might be a better way of silencing her.

The 31-year-old poet and feminist has been described as the Salman Rushdie of Bangladesh, because of a fatwa (death sentence) imposed on her for supposed blasphemy. But her battle is not only with Islamic fundamentalists. She also denounces Bangladeshi men for keeping women 'veiled, illiterate and in the kitchen'.

Nasreen's outspokeness has earned her many enemies, but she has refused to go into hiding, even when, as last Monday, 5,000 Muslim extremists stopped traffic in Dhaka by praying in the streets and demanding the writer's execution. Her only protection is two police guards outside the apartment in Dhaka where she lives with her mother and sisters. 'I will be the last to seek asylum in foreign countries,' she said. 'I will die here, and out of my ashes hundreds of Taslimas will be reborn.'

Her latest trouble began in October when a group of clerics known as Followers of the Prophet issued the fatwa and a reward of pounds 850 for her death. So far, perhaps because of the paltry purse (Salman Rushide's head is worth more than pounds 1m), no one has yet tried to kill her. Describing her appeal, novelist Imdadul Haq Milan said: 'Taslima's writing has two traits: religion and sex. The Mullahs read her books to find out what she is saying against them. The teenagers read her books because there is a lot of sex.'

The death decree came after the publication in January of her novel Lajja, or 'shame' in Bengali. She describes the persecution of Hindu families in Bangladesh, a vengeful backlash which followed the razing of a Muslim shrine at Ayodhya in India. It sold 60,000 copies before it was banned by the Bangladeshi government in July as 'inflammatory'.

In what may be a change of tactics, a Muslim clergyman, who already has several wives and more than a dozen children, offered to reform her through marriage. The three- times married Nasreen - who likens husband and wife to a master and slave relationship - declined to reply.

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