Nasrin, Taslima

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Introduction

Image by Barrylb/CC Licensed

Image by Barrylb/CC Licensed

“She is either the bravest or most foolish person I’ve ever met,” a friend of Nasrin’s is quoted as saying (Weaver 49). There is no question about the bravery of Taslima Nasrin — the daughter of a county physician father and a devoutly religious mother, who was suddenly thrust into the spotlight after the angry response of Islamic militants to her feminist writings. Nasrin’s writings express her thoughts on religion, feminism, and sexuality–issues that are often controversial in the traditional Muslim society of Bangladesh. Hindu and Muslim fundamentalist groups quickly took public stances about Nasrin’s work: Hindu fundamentalists adopted her as their new ally, distributing copies of her book, whereas Muslim fundamentalists burned hundreds of copies of her work, Lajja (Shame), and demanded her execution. Based on stories of Hindu-Muslim violence and the destruction of the Babri Masjid mosque in India, the novella tells the tale of a fictional Hindu family in Bangladesh made to suffer atrocities at the hands of Muslim fundamentalists following the mosque’s destruction. Taslima Nasrin became “both a creation of and a vehicle for religious extremists across the Indian subcontinent” (Weaver 55).

Biography

  • Born in 1962 in Mymensingh, a small town in present-day Bangladesh.
  • Received M.B.B.S. from Mymensingh Medical College in 1984.
  • Later moved to Dhaka, to complete residency and work in a government clinic.
  • Late 1980s: came into prominence as a poet, columnist, novelist, and fiercely independent feminist.
  • Began writing for various newspapers and magazines in 1989.
  • Attacks on her began in 1992 and continued after her publication of the novella Lajja in 1993.
  • May 1994: her passport was confiscated, her book banned, bounties were placed on her head, and a fatwa came in after she made a statement in an English language newspaper, The Statesman, that “the Koran should be revised thoroughly” (qtd. in Sen).  Her assertion was quickly clarified two days later in an editorial, but not before religious groups had already become aware of her statement.
  • August, 1994: after months of hiding and escaping, she eventually sought amnesty from the Women Writers’ Committee of International PEN.
  • 1994-2015: Nasrin has lived in exile in Sweden, France and the United States. From 2004-2007, she returned to India, but eventually was put on house arrest because of her continued writing and activism. She held a research fellowship with New York University toward the end of this period.
  • 2015-present: Nasrin moved to the United States after being threatened by Al-Qaeda linked extremists.

Two Poems

“Happy Marriage”

My life,
like a sandbar, has been taken over by a monster of a man.
He wants my body under his control
so that if he wishes he can spit in my face,
slap me on the cheek
and pinch my rear.
So that if he wishes he can rob me of my clothes
and take the naked beauty in his grip.
So that if he wishes he can pull out my eyes,
so that if he wishes he can chain my feet,
if he wishes, he can, with no qualms whatsoever,
use a whip on me,
if he wishes he can chop off my hands, my fingers.
If he wishes he can sprinkle salt in the open wound,
he can throw ground-up black pepper in my eyes.
So that if he wishes he can slash my thigh with a dagger,
so that if he wishes he can string me up and hang me.

He wanted my heart under his control
so that I would love him:
in my lonely house at night,
sleepless, full of anxiety,
clutching at the window grille,
I would wait for him and sob,
My tears rolling down, I would bake homemade bread;
so that I would drink, as if they were ambrosia,
the filthy liquids of his polygynous body.
So that, loving him, I would melt like wax,
not turning my eyes toward any other man,
I would give proof of my chastity all my life.
So that, loving him
on some moonlit night I would commit suicide
in a fit of ecstasy

(Wright 18)

“Border”

I’m going to move ahead.
Behind me my whole family is calling,
my child is pulling at my sari-end,
my husband stands blocking the door,
but I will go.
There’s nothing ahead but a river
I will cross.
I know how to swim, but they
won’t let me swim, won’t let me cross.

There’s nothing on the other side of the river
but a vast expanse of fields,
but I’ll touch this emptiness once
and run against the wind, whose whooshing sound
makes me want to dance. I’ll dance someday
and then return.

I’ve not played keep-away for years
as I did in childhood.
I’ll raise a great commotion playing keep-away someday
and then return.

For years I haven’t cried with my head
in the lap of solitude.
I’ll cry to my heart’s content someday
and then return.

There’s nothing ahead but a river
and I know how to swim.
Why shouldn’t I go? I’ll go.

(Wright 19)

Discussion of “Happy Marriage” and “Border”

In her two poems “Happy Marriage” and “Border” from the collection The Game in Reverse, Nasrin describes two different instances of male domination over women with two very different resolutions.

In the poem “Happy Marriage,” a woman speaks of how her husband has taken control of her entire life, desiring to hold absolute power over her body. She describes her husband as a “monster” who physically, emotionally and sexually abuses her. In the first half of the poem, Nasrin writes about the male’s fantasies of control in visceral terms. In the second stanza, Nasrin’s speaker explains to the reader why her husband did the things he did: he wanted her to love him, to pine away for him, and when she didn’t he became frustrated. She illustrates a vivid picture of a woman mad with love, literally going crazy and committing suicide as a testament to her ecstasy at his hands. Nasrin creates a very melodramatic, overly romantic image, building it up further and further in order to convey her sarcasm and cynicism in her regards to the husband’s wishes. She is mocking him outright in her over-dramatization of the ideal situation he has decided in his head, and she culminates the vision in the wife’s killing of herself out of love: the supreme way of demonstrating her love for her husband. However, Nasrin’s mention of suicide also can be interpreted as perhaps a foreshadowing of the wife’s future; her only possible escape from her husband’s oppressive control over her. (See Gender and Nation)

The poem “Border” differs significantly from “Happy Marriage” in the means by which the wife comes to terms with her husband’s dominion over her. In “Border,” the speaker is restrained by her husband forbidding her escape, but also by her duties as a mother and as the nurturer of the family. She realizes that escape will not be easy; she sees it as being quite an obstacle, but she has confidence in her ability to survive and make it on her own. In the first stanza she compares the hardships she must conquer to a river that must be crossed, but despite the fact that she knows she can do it, her family “won’t let me swim, won’t let me cross.” In the second, third, and fourth stanzas, the speaker discusses the freedoms that await her on the other side of the “river”; she revels in the notions of being able to do things she has not done in years, since her youth and she makes a promise to go across, find some freedom, and return. The ending of the poem gives the reader a great sense of hope for the speaker — she realizes her oppressed state and desires to get out of it; she knows she has the capabilities to do so; she also knows her responsibilities to her family, but she does not let that stand in the way of achieving the freedom she has promised herself. This concern for the self is something refreshing that is found in Nasrin’s poetry — according to the traditional expectations and values of this society, women are constantly expected to sacrifice their own personal freedom and happiness for the sake of their husbands, children, and family. However, through the poem “Border,” Nasrin reaffirms the woman as a human being who has duties and responsibilities to her family, but is also worthy of satisfying her own desires and aspirations.

Works Cited

  • Nasrin, Taslima. “Bengali Women: Tongues Untied.” World Press Review. vol. 42, Jun 1995.
  • —. “Beyond the Scriptures.” The Statesman. 11 May 1994.
  • —. The Game in Reverse. New York: George Brazilier, 1995.
  • Sen, Sujata. “I write because I want to change society.” The Statesman. 9 May 1994: 2A.
  • Weaver, Mary Anne. “A Fugitive from Injustice.” The New Yorker. 12 Sept. 1994: 48.
  • Wright, Carolyn. “Taslima Nasrin’s Translator Tells How Bangladeshi Writer Became Cause Celebre.” The PEN Newsletter.  vol.86, Winter 1995.

List of Major Works

Collections of Poetry

  • Nasrin, Taslima. Amar kichu jay ase na (I Couldn’t Care Less). Mymensingh, Sakal: 1988.
  • —. Atale antarin (Captive in the Abyss). Dhaka: Vidyaprakas, 1991.
  • —. Ay kasta jhepe, jiban debo mepe (Pain Come Pouring Down, I’ll Measure Out My Life for You). Dhaka: Jnankos Prakasani, 1994.
  • —. Behula eka bhasiyechila bhela (Behula Floated the Raft Alone). Dhaka: Sikha Prakasani, 1993.
  • —. The Game in Reverse. New York: George Braziller, 1995.
  • —. Nirbasita bahire antare (Banished Without and Within). 1989.

Novellas/Novels

  • Nasrin, Taslima. Lajja (Shame). Amherst: Prometheus, 1993.
  • —. Forashi Premik (French Lover). India: Penguin India, 2002.
  • —. Meyebela: My Bengali Childhood. South Royalton: Steerforth Press, 2002.

Awards

  • The Ananda Prize – Calcutta, 1992.
  • The Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought – Prague, 1994.
  • Humanist Laureate from International Academy for Humanism, USA, 1996
  • Ananda literary Award, India, 2000
  • 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
  • Simone de Beauvoir Prize, 2008
  • Fellowship at New York University, USA, 2009
  • Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, USA, 2009
  • Feminist Press award, USA, 2009

Related Sites

Nasrin’s website
http://taslimanasrin.com/index2.html

Video of 2012 speech

 

Author: Arthi Devarajan, Spring 1998
Last edited: May 2017

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