Taslima Nasrin (Bengali: তসলিমা নাসরিন, Arabic: تسليمة نسرین, Hindi: तसलीमा नसरीन, Toslima Nasrin) is a Bangladeshi author and former physician who has been living in exile since 1994. From a modest literary profile in the late 1980s, she rose to global fame by the end of the 20th century owing to her feminist views and her criticism of Islam in particular and of religion in general.
Since fleeing Bangladesh in 1994 she has lived in many countries, and currently (June 2011) lives in New Delhi. She works to build support for secular humanism, freedom of thought, equality for women, and human rights by publishing, lecturing, and campaigning. Her name, Taslima Nasrin, is also spelled Taslima Nasreen.
She was born to Rajab Ali and Idul Ara in the town of Mymensingh in 1962. Her father was a physician, and she followed in his footsteps. Her mother was a devout Muslim. After high school in 1976 (SSC) and higher secondary studies in college (HSC) in 1978, she studied medicine at the Mymensingh Medical College an affiliated medical college of the University of Dhaka and graduated in 1984 with an MBBS degree; in college, she showed a propensity for poetry by writing as well as editing a poetry journal. After graduation, she practiced gynaecology at a family planning clinic in Mymensingh, "where she routinely examined young girls who had been raped," and heard women in the delivery room cry out in despair if their baby was a girl. She was reassigned in 1990 to work in Dhaka. Born into a Muslim family she became an atheist over time. In course of writing she took a feminist approach.
In 1982 she fell in love with poet Rudra Mohammad Shahidullah and fled home to marry him; they divorced in 1986. Later she married journalist and editor Nayeemul Islam Khan; they divorced in 1991. In 1991 she married Minar Mahmood, editor of the now defunct weekly Bichinta, they divorced in 1992.
Literary Career Until 'Lajja'
Early in her literary career, she wrote mainly poetry, and published half a dozen collections of poetry between 1982 and 1993, often with female oppression as a theme, and often containing very graphic language. She started publishing prose in the early 1990s, and produced three collections of essays and four novels before the publication of her 1993 novel Lajja (Bengali: লজ্জা Lôjja), or Shame, in which a Hindu family is persecuted by Muslims. This publication changed her life and career dramatically.
Following the publication of Lajja, Nasrin suffered a number of physical and other attacks. She had written against Islamic philosophy, angering many Muslims of Bangladesh, who called for a ban on her novel. In October 1993, an Islamic fundamentalist group called the Council of Islamic Soldiers offered a bounty for her death. In May 1994 she was interviewed by the Kolkata edition of The Statesman, which quoted her as calling for a revision of the Quran; she claims she only called for revision of the Sharia, the Islamic religious law. In August 1994 she was brought up on "charges of making inflammatory statements," and faced death threats from Islamic fundamentalists and religious Muslims. A major religious organization claims her to be a "paid agent" of anti-islamists. A hundred thousand demonstrators called her "an apostate appointed by imperial forces to vilify Islam"; a "militant faction threatened to set loose thousands of poisonous snakes in the capital unless she was executed." After spending two months in hiding, at the end of 1994 she escaped to Sweden, consequently ceasing her medicine practice and becoming a full-time writer and activist.
Life in Exile
After fleeing Bangladesh in 1994, Nasrin spent the next ten years in exile in the West. She returned to the east and relocated to Kolkata, India, in 2004, where she lived until 2007. After renewed unrest broke out, and after spending several months in hiding, Nasrin left for the West again in 2008.
Exile in the West (1994-2004)
Leaving Bangladesh towards the end of 1994, Nasrin lived in exile in Western Europe and North America for ten years. Her Bangladeshi passport had been revoked; she was granted citizenship by the Swedish government and took refuge in Germany. She even had to wait for six years (1994–1999) to get a visa to visit India, and never got a Bangladeshi passport to return to the country when her mother, and later her father, were on their death beds.
In March 2000, she visited Mumbai to promote a translation of her novel Shodh (translated by Marathi author Ashok Shahane, the book was called Phitam Phat). Secular groups seized upon the occasion to celebrate freedom of expression, while "Muslim fundamentalist groups...threatened to burn her alive."
Life in Kolkata (2004-2007)
In 2004, she was granted a renewable temporary residential permit by India and moved to Kolkata in the state of West Bengal, which shares a common heritage and language with Bangladesh; in an interview in 2007, after she had been forced to flee, she called Kolkata her home. The government of India extended her visa to stay in the country on a periodic basis, though it refused to grant her Indian citizenship. While living in Kolkata, Nasrin regularly contributed to Indian newspapers and magazines, including Anandabazar Patrika and Desh, and, for some time, wrote a weekly column in the Bengali version of The Statesman. Again her anti-Islam comments met with opposition from religious fundamentalists: in 2006, Syed Noorur Rehaman Barkati, the imam of Kolkata's Tipu Sultan Mosque, admitted offering money to anyone who "blackened [that is, publicly humiliated] Ms Nasreen's face." Even abroad she caused controversy: in 2005, she tried to read an anti-war poem titled "America" to a large Bengali crowd at the North American Bengali Conference at Madison Square Garden in New York City, and was booed off the stage. Back in India, the "All India Muslim Personal Board (Jadeed)" offered 500,000 rupees for her beheading in March 2007. The group's president, Tauqir Raza Khan, said the only way the bounty would be lifted was if Nasrin "apologises, burns her books and leaves."
Expulsion from Kolkata
On August 9, 2007, Nasrin was in Hyderabad to present the Telugu translation of one of her novels, Shodh, when she was attacked by a mob of violent intruders, led by legislators from the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, a Muslim political party. A week later, on August 17, Muslim leaders in Kolkata revived an old fatwa against her, urging her to leave the country and offering an unlimited amount of money to anybody who would kill her. On November 21, Kolkata witnessed a violent protest against Nasrin by Muslims. A protest organized by the militant islamist "All India Minority Forum" caused chaos in the city and forced the army's deployment to restore order. After the riots, Nasrin was forced to move from Kolkata, her "adopted city," to Jaipur, and to New Delhi the following day.
House Arrest in New Delhi
The government of India kept Nasrin in an undisclosed location in New Delhi, effectively under house arrest, for more than seven months. In January 2008, she was selected for the Simone de Beauvoir award in recognition of her writing on women's rights, but declined to go to Paris to receive the award, fearing that she would not be allowed to re-enter India. She explained that "I don't want to leave India at this stage and would rather fight for my freedom here," but she had to be hospitalized for three days with several complaints. The house arrest quickly acquired an international dimension: in a letter to London-based human rights organisation Amnesty International, India’s former foreign secretary Muchkund Dubey urged the organization to pressure the Indian government so Nasrin could safely return to Kolkata.
From New Delhi, Nasrin commented: "I'm writing a lot, but not about Islam, It's not my subject now. This is about politics. In the last three months I have been put under severe pressure to leave [West] Bengal by the police." In an email interview from the undisclosed safehouse, Nasrin talked about the stress caused by "this unendurable loneliness, this uncertainty and this deathly silence." She canceled the publication of the sixth part of her autobiography Nei Kichu Nei ("No Entity"), and—under pressure—deleted some passages from Dwikhondito, the controversial book that was the boost for the riots in Kolkata. She was forced to leave India on March 19, 2008.
Current Situation (2011)
Nasrin moved to Sweden in 2008 and later worked as a research scholar at New York University. Since, as she claims, "her soul lived in India," she also pledged her body to that country, by awarding it for posthumous medical use to Gana Darpan, a Kolkata-based NGO, in 2005. She eventually returned to India, but was forced to stay in New Delhi as the West Bengal government refused to permit her entry. Recently she got into another controversy throwing comments to Salman Rushdie on a social networking site.
Nasrin started writing poetry when she was thirteen. While still at college in Mymensingh, she published and edited a literary magazine, SeNjuti ("Light in the dark"), from 1978 to 1983. She published her first collection of poems in 1986. Her second collection, Nirbashito Bahire Ontore ("Banished within and without", 1989) was a big success. She succeeded in attracting a wider readership when she started writing columns in late 1980s, and, in the early 1990s, she began writing novels, for which she has won significant acclaim. In all, she has written more than thirty books of poetry, essays, novels, short stories, and memoirs, and her books have been translated into 20 different languages.
Her own experience of sexual abuse during adolescence and her work as a gynaecologist influenced her a great deal in writing about the treatment of women in Islam and against religion in general.. Her writing is characterized by two connected elements: her struggle with the Islam of her native culture, and her feminist philosophy. She cites Virginia Woolf and Simone de Beauvoir as influences, and, when pushed to think of one closer to home, Begum Rokeya, who lived during the time of undivided Bengal. Her later poetry also evidences a connection to place, to Bangladesh and India.
Columns and Essays
In 1989 Nasrin began to contribute to the weekly political magazine Khaborer Kagoj, edited by her second husband, Nayeemul Islam Khan, and published from Dhaka. Her feminist views and anti-religion remarks articles succeeded in drawing broad attention, and she shocked the religious and conservative society of Bangladesh by her radical comments and suggestions. Later she collected these columns in a volume titled Nirbachita Column, which in 1992 won her first Ananda Purashkar award, a prestigious award for Bengali writers. During her life in Kolkata, she contributed a weekly essay to the Bengali version of The Statesman, called Dainik Statesman.
In 1992 Nasrin produced two novellas which failed to draw attention.
Her breakthrough novel Lajja (Shame) was published in 1993, and attracted wide attention because of its controversial subject matter. It contained the graphic description of a rape of a Hindu woman by a Muslim man. Initially written as a thin documentary, Lajja grew into a full-length novel as the author later revised it substantially. In six months' time, it sold 50,000 copies in Bangladesh before being banned by the government that same year.
Her other famous novel is ''French Lover'', published in 2002.
Her memoirs are renowned for their candidness, which has led to a number of them being banned in Bangladesh and India. Amar Meyebela (My Girlhood, 2002), the first volume of her memoir, was banned by the Bangladeshi government in 1999 for "reckless comments" against Islam and the prophet Mohammad. Utal Hawa (Wild Wind), the second part of her memoir, was banned by the Bangladesh government in 2002. Ka (Speak up), the third part of her memoir, was banned by the Bangladeshi High Court in 2003. Under pressure from Indian Muslim activists, the book, which was published in West Bengal as Dwikhandita, was banned there also; some 3,000 copies were seized immediately. The decision to ban the book was criticized by "a host of authors" in West Bengal, but the ban wasn't lifted until 2005. Sei Sob Ondhokar Din guli (Those Dark Days), the fourth part of her memoir, was banned by the Bangladesh government in 2004.
She received her second Ananda Purashkar award in 2000, for her memoir Amar Meyebela (My Girlhood, published in English in 2002).
Nasrin created the Edulwara scholarship in her mother's name to give scholarship (50,000-100,000 taka) to twenty female students of 7th to 10th grade from economically poor families in Mymensingh, Bangladesh.
She started an organisation called Dharmamukta Manab-bai mancha ("Humanist organisation free from religion") in Kolkata. The organisation's aim was to enlighten and spread secular education, and to fight for women's rights and a uniform and equal civil code.
Taslima has received a number of international awards in recognition of her uncompromising demand for freedom of expression. Awards and Honours given to her include the following:
Ananda literary Award, India, 1992
Natyasava Award, Bangladesh, 1992
Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thoughts from the European Parliament, 1994
Human Rights Award from the Government of France, 1994
Edict of Nantes Prize from France, 1994
Kurt Tucholsky Prize, Swedish PEN, Sweden, 1994
Hellman-Hammett Grant from Human Rights Watch, USA, 1994
Humanist Award from Human-Etisk Forbund, Norway, 1994
Feminist of the Year from Feminist Majority Foundation, USA, 1994
Honorary Doctorate from Ghent University, Belgium, 1995
Scholarship from the German Academic Exchange Service, Germany, 1995
Monismanien Prize from Uppsala University, Sweden, 1995
Distinguished Humanist Award from International Humanist and Ethical Union, Great Britain, 1996
Humanist Laureate from International Academy for Humanism, USA, 1996
Ananda literary Award, India, 2000
Global Leader for Tomorrow, World Economic Forum, 2000
Erwin Fischer Award, International League of non-religious and atheists (IBKA), Germany, 2002
Freethought Heroine Award, Freedom From Religion Foundation, USA, 2002
Fellowship at Carr Centre for Human Rights Policy,John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, USA, 2003
UNESCO-Madanjeet Singh Prize for the promotion of tolerance and non-violence,2004
Honorary Doctorate from American University of Paris, 2005
Grand Prix International Condorcet-Aron, 2005
Sharatchandra literary award, West Bengal, India, 2006
Honorary citizenship of Paris, France, 2008
Simone de Beauvoir Prize, 2008
Fellowship at New York University, USA, 2009
Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, USA, 2009
Feminist Press award, USA, 2009