Taslima Nasrin: A Woman of Courage without a Country

July 06, 2015

Taslima Nasrin is a world-renowned author and secular activist from Bangladesh. A physician by training, she has written a plethora of novels, poems and papers standing for the rights of women and criticizing religious extremism. Nasrin’s brave and influential writings have angered both governments and Islamists, forcing her to leave her home country, and take up residence in several different countries, at one point settling in India until very recently.

Dr. Nasrin tells her story in this special episode of Point of Inquiry, recorded before a live audience at the Center for Inquiry’s Reason for Change conference. In conversation with Lindsay Beyerstein, she discusses her life as a skeptical child in Bangladesh, her perspective on the Islamisation of her home country, and her rise to the dangerous status of human rights hero and “enemy number one” of Islamic extremists.

To this day her writing still causes outrage in Islamic extremists, and she was recently named as a target for murder by the same Al Qaeda-linked Islamists who claimed responsibility for the deaths of other secular bloggers, including Avijit Roy. In response to this threat, the Center for Inquiry took action to bring her to safety in the United States. Even thought Nasrin has lost the home she knows and loves but the Bangladeshi government and Islamic regime will never be able to take away her pen. Nasrin continues to write for freedom and justice, offering a voice to millions who do not have one.

This is point of inquiry for Monday, July six, 2015. This episode was recorded before a live audience at Center for Inquiries Reason for Change conference on June 13, 2015. 

My next guest maybe needs no introduction, but I’ll try to give her a good one anyway. Has Lema Nisrine is a bestselling author, poet, novelist, cultural critic from Bangladesh. She’s been living in exile since nineteen ninety four. Secular writings have been translated widely and read all over the world, and especially in her native country. So medical doctor and she recently fell under threats from some of the same contingencies that have been threatening the life of a Sieff, and CFI acted decisively to bring her to the United States. 

And we are very, very privileged and happy to have her with us today. Rocky, welcome to the program. Thank you so much. Can you talk about how how you came to secularism within a very religious society? 


I do not think I ever believed in religion. I was a curious child. I always questioned my mother as a religious woman. She forced me to read the Koran as we are Bengali. 

And do you do not understand Arabic? So I didn’t know the meaning of the Arabic language that we read. 

So you were sounding out the script. 

You could say the words, but not reading and understand not understanding the meaning. 

So one day I asked my mother, what is the meaning of the verses that I read? My mother told me that you do not need to know the meaning of the verses, but you read the Koran in Arabic allowing you be happy. But I was not happy. I wanted to know the meaning of the verses. 

My mother asked me, Pray now Mars in Arabic and I was not happy to read to play in Mars in Arabic. So I asked my mother, what if I play in Bangla Bengali? And she was furious because everybody, all Muslim, should pray in Arabic. 

Then I asked, I told my mother, look, you told me that Allah knows everything. Doesn’t Allah no Bengali? 

So you would think, right. Why do I have to play Arabic only? So did they tell you any kind of rough outline as to what you were praying for, like happiness? 

Now is Dr. Sam Surace some verses that I had to, you know, after this. So anyway, so I ask my mother told me if you say anything bad about a la, your tongue will fall off. Then I was very scared. And also, I was a curious girl. So I went to bathroom and closed the bathroom door. And I said, I like this son of a bitch. 

So I like this son of a dog. 

I like this son of a, you know, pig. 

And I waited for, you know, one minute, two minutes or five minutes. I was scared at times. Tom Flynn for love. Then I realized that, you know, nothing happened. My tongue just was in my mouth. It didn’t fall off. 

So I. 

I thought my mother was wrong. 

And then when I was eleven or twelve years old, I read the translation, Bengali translation of the Koran. And I found lots of injustices and inequalities in the Koran. So I stopped believing in the court. 

In Islam, I shouldn’t say I stopped believing it. I did not believe in Islam, but I thought maybe the Koran said good about people. No, but then I realized that truly Koran is a pretty bad book. And when I studied other religions, I found they oppressed women, too. There are lots of inequalities in injustice in other religions where some of the themes that jumped out at you and the Koran as being oppressive. Yeah, because the Koran says that women men are superior to women because men are in money. So what about women and money? They haven’t said anything about that, but also that if we if women are dissipating, then men can beat their wives. 

And also men can marry four times or can have four wives. And but women are not allowed to divorce their husbands if they want. And women are not allowed to have their fathers parents property equally with their brothers. So there are lots of injustices against women. 

When you started learning about this stuff, did you keep these thoughts to yourself or did you start sharing them with other people? 

I was a very shy girl. I could not share, but I could write. It’s hard to believe that you’re shy. Now is I. But I was not very shy or not at all shy. And in my writing. So I started writing. Not about that, actually. Not about. At that time I started writing. 

I started writing long ago and when I was 13 years old, I started writing poetry and. Were published in different literary magazines. 

And I even edited a literary magazine. Especially the poetry magazine. When I was 17 years old and I studied medicine at that time, I didn’t get much time to continue publishing my literary magazines. 

So after I became a doctor, I wrote again poetry and my poetry book was published. And then my other books, my book, essay, books, books of essays. And also I wrote short stories and novels were published. I wrote 40 books of poetry, essays, short stories and novels, and my autobiography, too. I wrote seven books of my autobiography. 

Was it unusual for a woman of your age to become trained as a doctor in Bangladesh? 

Yeah. Yeah, no more men. 

Actually, I found in my medical college than women, but it was not very usual, but it was not very uncommon also. So middle class from middle class family and rich family women go to study medicine. But you know what I have seen when I studied Mendi Singh at that time, the students, the girls students didn’t wear burqa or hit job. But now 20 years or more than 20 years, you know, 25 years. What I have seen that all my classmates who became doctors, the women. 

They are very famous doctors. They are not only in Bangladesh. They lived in Europe and in the United States, Canada or also Australia. OK. I was surprised to see that they are all vague now with their cover. Yeah. Egypt not covered. But there were scuffles and new students in Bangladesh, medical, college, medical colleges. There were hit jobs. You know, they have students who are in medical colleges or engineering colleges. 

This study signs, but they’re surprisingly, unfortunately, very religious. 

They were both causer jobs that I became very sad when they say that it’s because of Islamisation started in Bangladesh since mid 80s. 

And even the Sinai students are influenced. 

You know, they become very religious and also terrorists. 

You know, they’re some of the terrorists who who support killing off atheist bloggers. And they are engineers, you know, or some of the suspects actually were engineers who killed, you know, 18 of e.g., try a very famous atheist blogger in Bangladesh. So this is really strange because there are many atheists, actually secularists and humanists. 

We have seen their background. It’s not size, maybe arts, you know. So why that science students become religious fundamentalists? Why do you think that is? That is really at times. He still searching for that or researching? 

I don’t know. Maybe some of you can tell. 

Do you think maybe it’s because they have the science education that they’re getting isn’t giving them sort of a grounding and other meanings, other ways of thinking about meaning in life and that they’re grabbing onto something else? 

I think that’s the many students who become doctors and engineers to study science because they want to get good jobs, because they really do not become do not have scientific outlook. 

This is a strange but it’s true. So many, many Indian scientists go to mosques in Turkey, go to mosques and and and temples who are Hindus. 

Even the people rocket scientists go to go to temples, you know, to offer puja prayers. 

When did you first sort of become aware our a personal level of the Islamist ization where there were signs? 

Do you remember sort of thinking, oh, my goodness, things are really changing as you were living it in the 80s? 

Yeah, I started writing for newspapers also and I wrote books in Bangladesh, The Fundamentalist in the beginning of 90s, they issued fatwas against me. They set price on my head. And I was at that time working as a medical doctor in public hospital in Bangladesh. 

And then hundreds of thousands of fundamentalists came to the streets demanding my execution by hanging. There were hundreds of thousands of people in the street, three hundred thousand four hundred thousand. And they paralyzed the country. You know, they all hospitals, schools, colleges, every public. Aniello number one. 

I was in one day I was going to my medical college hospital because I was working in gynecology department and my rig shaved. I didn’t have car at that time. I had a rich. I was going there and 50000 people were coming from opposite side in the street. And they’re demanding the slimmers execution by hanging and. I was there going, you know, then rickshaw puller, just stop his ricksha. 

So I ask him to do it little bit, you know, Spider, so that they cannot see my face. 

But it was not easy. I fear realized that it was you. If they could see it recognized me, they would have killed me right away, you know. So I lived that way. But still, I did not want to leave the country. But the government filed a case against me on the charges of plus for me and I had to go into hiding. My lawyers told me you must go into hiding. I wanted to face the no arrest warrant. An arrest warrant was issued against me. So police were looking for me. So I thought, OK. They would arrest me. What is the problem? But my lawyer told me so. Religious feelings is very dangerous. Police would kill you. 

Or if you were in in prison, maybe the prisoners would kill you. So it’s better to go into hiding. So I was in hiding for two months in 1994. And then then I got bail. 

And the human rights organizations in the West actually tried to save me. And then I was saved. 

I was kind of torn out of my country also. 

How did you feel when you found out that you had this way out? 

To leave the country? 

Yeah, I, I actually was not that happy that I had to because it was a battlefield and I was fighting. I was it was kind of challenge, you know. 

Was it exhilarating and some. It’s a battle. You know, I had to save my life. 

So I came to Sweden and then I lived. I had to I wanted to go back to my country afterwards, but it was impossible. Government prevented me to enter the country. My mother died when my mother met. When my mother was when my father was in sick on his deathbed. I beg, I pleaded. I requested the government to let me enter the country only for a few days to stay to, you know, to be with my father in his last days. 

But my the government of Bangladesh didn’t allow me to enter the country. My father died. He so much wanted to see me before he died. 

I couldn’t see my son’s father only because that the government doesn’t let me into the country to spend twenty one years, that I am not allowed to enter my country. And the government doesn’t do it. It’s not to save my life, not for my security to actually for their own security, because they think if they allow an atheist to enter the country, they will be considered an atheist sympathizer and then they will not get votes from ignorant religious masses. 

So can you tell us that the events, this escalation of threats against you that led you to come to the United States? 

You know, I was living in Europe and then because Bangladesh doesn’t let me return to Bangladesh. So I decided to go to India because it’s a neighboring country. And also India has it has a state that Bengal is so that I wanted to be there and to get Bengali environment. 

And also I have many Bengali friends there. So I moved to before I was not allowed to enter India even. 

And then when I got the opportunity to go to visit India, I started visiting India. And then I ask whether I can live there. I asked the Indian government and then I was allowed to live in India. 

So since 2005, I started living in Bengal, part of India, and then again, West Bengal government used me for their political interests because I was labeled as being anti-Islam, even though I criticize all religions. 

But Muslim fundamentalists labeled me as anti-Islam. 

So West Bengal government threw me out of West Bengal to get votes from twenty five percent Muslims that lived in West Bengal. 

And then also the Indian government puts them as if they were demagoging around your case. We area we’re really sticking up for the faith by kicking her out. 

Yeah. And then I was thrown I was under put under house arrest in Delhi and by Indian government and then I was thrown out of India also in 2000, a house arrest unit. 

I mean, there’s a democracy. How are they allowed to do that? 

They do. But they did say to the world that I am in a safe house, but I was not in safer. I was I was most on safe house path, so I was under house arrest. And they forced me to leave the country. 

And they asked me, what do you want? We will give as much money as you want to give you apartment in euro. We will give, you know, a furnished apartment car, but leave India because they are really afraid of me. So it was a big challenge for me also to that I lived in India because you don’t they didn’t allow me to to live in India until 2000. Eleven. But there are many secular people in India and also feminist humanist. They want me to live in India. So it was a kind of challenge. But recently there is a police report published in Bangladesh newspaper that said that unsettled lutein or. The Indian subcontinent decided or planned to kill me in Delhi. I lived in Delhi. So they sent two or three sleeper cells. 

Sleeper cells means those terrorist organizations who killed all those bloggers have 800 to 1000 sleeper cells in one sleeper cells. 

There are three or four killers. They are trained as killers. 

And one sleeper cell do not know about other sleeper cells who are in nervous, living their lives and working jobs and doing well until they get the order to go after somebody. 

Yeah, and they were coming tumor’s or carpenters or doctors or anything. Yeah, could be. They were coming to Delhi where I was living to kill me. So I was, you know, even though I was an European citizen green card holder. But still I decided to live in India because it is the only place that I could live in the Indian subcontinent. And all my readers are there, you know, because I write in Bengali and my books get published in many, many different Indian languages. And also women are oppressed. There is a very misogynistic, patriarchal society where I can encourage women to fight for their rights and freedom and encourage men and women both to become secularists, humanists, you know, and many, many people actually are becoming, after reading my books, becoming a secularist, feminist and humanist. And many it is brog. Bloggers in Bangladesh also are very influenced by me. You know, they were very young when I I was living in in Bangladesh and fighting against religious fundamentalists and misogynists. But now they they were very much influenced by me. So this gives me a bit of satisfaction that I actually created many merely conscious people. So maybe I thought that even though I could live in Europe or America, but I lived in the Indian subcontinent because I can work there and I can really encourage my writing books by writing newspaper columns and all my speeches, I could I could influence people. But now, after three after that means that they’re coming to kill me. Then some of my friends. And also and I thought that it is better that I could live in a safe place and and continue my writings. 

When you got the news that these people were literally coming to kill you logistically, how did you go about getting out of the country? 

And could you just go to the airport and buy it? 

No, not right away, because I was thinking that whether I should leave or heard that I should be careful. And I found that I couldn’t sleep. 

And when I go out there, you know, I was always thinking that somebody may be coming to kill me, to hack me to death. 

And even though I have police protection in India, but I was not very sure those police can could protect me. So it is better that I could move. I should move in a safe place from there and I could continue my writing because if I am dead there. 

What is the use? Yeah. 

So it is better that I live in a safe place and continue my writing and my fighting against religious fundamentalism and also misogyny and patriarchal system. And there are lots of injustice and against all this injustices and inequalities against women. 

Do you have any big projects, pet projects or anything like that? 

Yeah. I am writing I am writing a book on feminism. No. 

Can you tell us a bit about that? 

This is the book is about is an orphan because I don’t I did not write novel often, but this is a novel. 

This is about two men liberated women who actually lived in a very patriarchal society who would be the role model of many women like this. 

That’s all the time we have. Thank you so much for coming on the program. 

Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The NationMs. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times’ City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (http://www.hillmanfoundation.org/hillmanblog), a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.