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Examples of Islamic Fascism: Women Against Fundamenalism

WAF Articles

Taslima Nasreen and the fight against fundamentalism
Journal no.6 1995. pp53-56.
by Angela Cummins

The disease of religious fundamentalism is not restricted to Bangladesh alone and it must be fought at every turn... I am convinced that the only way the fundamentalist forces can be stopped is if all of us who are secular and humanistic join together and fight their malignant influence. I, for one, will not be silenced. " Excerpt from the preface of Lajja (Shame) by Taslima Nasreen

On 4 June 1994, Taslima Nasreen, the popular Bangladeshi columnist and writer, was charged under section 295 (a) of the Bangladeshi Penal code for "hurting religious senti-ments" and a warrant was issued for her arrest. immediately, Islamic fundamentalists renewed their demand for her death and threatened to release 10,000 snakes to symbolise her infamy.(1)

Through her writing, Nasreen has instigated lively debate in Bangladesh and, while most political organisations are Uncomfortable to show support for her, mass public Support from both women and men has ensured that she continues to expose controversial issues. Nasreen, although not part of the literary establishment, has for a long time been an advocate of women's and minority rights and she receives hundreds of letters a day from women who claim that she has written their story. Educated and illiterate women alike suffer in Bangladesh under the wrath of funda-mentalism and Nasreen's 'crime' was to relentlessly challenge religiously sanctioned agendas that aim to subjugate women.

Nasreen is one of numerous women fearless to speak out against intolerance and oppression justi-fied in the name of religion. Jahanara Imarn, whose recent death passed unnoticed in Western media, headed a popular struggle between secularists and religious fundamentalists. She sought to lay charges against those who collaborated with the Pakistani army during the Bangladeshi war of liberation in 1971, for abetting genocide. The most prominent of the accused is Ghulam Azam, leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami, the largest and most vocal of the fundamen-talist parties in Bangladesh. Azam has recently regained Bangladeshi citizenship despite strong evi-dence implicating him in the persecution of anti- Pakistani dissidents.

Sufia Kamal, a poet and powerful representative of secularism in Bangladesh in the 1980s, continues despite repeated death threats, to be active in organ-isations against oppression. Karnal currently heads Mahila Parishad (Women's Council for Women), an organisation protesting against the resurgence of salish (village arbitration council) indictments against women.

Most of the victims of salish proceedings are rural women accused of adultery. Amnesty international describes salishes as "invariably constituted by con-servative members of rural Sociely,'(2) who seek to legislate on what women can and cannot do and punish those that do not conform. Two reported deaths from salish verdicts during 1993, in which one woman was publicly stoned and later committed suicide and another woman burned to death, are examples of the often fatal and extralegal verdicts that salish leaders impose.

Ain 0 Salish Kendra (ASK), a human rights and legal aid care centre in Dhaka, views salish indictments against women as not only a threat to civil and secular norms of society but a violation of Bangladeshi law.

Nasreen has been critical of traditional society and defiant in challenging the authority of religion. This has outraged Islamic fundamentalists who link their persecution of Nasreen with a demand for the exclusion of Western aid agencies, which they say create 'decadence' and 'anti-Islamic practices.'(3) Hope now lies in this fiercely contested debate on the meanings of Islamic law, and the effectiveness of continued pressure on the Bangladeshi Government to uphold and enforce basic human rights despite fundamentalist opposition.

Salish indictments against women are thought by some feminist observers to be a backlash against women's development organisations which provide health and education services and income generating programmes for women.

Fundamentalists are demanding restrictions on non-government organisa-tions (NGO's), particularly those that promote gender equality and empower women. Fundamentalist groups have set fire to education centres, sabotaged women's health clinics, destroyed mulberry bushes for silk co-operatives and intimidated people who work for targeted development organisations. Human Rights Watch believes that particular NG0s are targets of fundamentalist attacks because they receive funds from Western aid agencies and provide a direct challenge to the power and income of local religious leaders.(4)

Many activist women understand Bangladesh as a country that should encourage women's equality and promote harmony between people of different faiths. Tragically, they face tremendous opposition from religious figureheads along with the threats and fatwas- was that fundamentalist insanity is gaining notoriety for. Fatwas are proving quite effective in gaining results for ambitious fundamentalist leaders world- wide, who deem explorative thought as anathema to religious principles.

On 10 July 1993, the Bangladeshi Government, following increasing pressure from islamic funda-mentalists, banned Lajja (Shame) on the grounds that it created 'misunderstanding between communities' and fundamentalist leaders intensified their demand for Nasreen's death. Nasreen, one of Bangladesh's best selling authors, wrote Lajja in response to anti- Hindu riots in Bangladesh. It describes the persecu-tion of a Hindu family in Bangladesh after the destruction of the Ayodhya Mosque by Hindu funda-mentalists in India in December 1992.

Islamic funda-mentalism in Bangladesh is fuelling a religious nationalism, which excludes and encroaches upon the political space of minority communities such as Hindus, indigenous people of the Chittagong Hill Tracts and Ahmadis (a group which regards itself as Muslim, but is regarded by orthodox Muslims as heretical).

Lajja, inspired by Nasreen's long time commitment to fight injustice and discrimination based on race, religion and gender, highlights two major issues of immediate concern. Firstly, it raises the issue of Hindu minority rights in Bangladesh at a time when Hindus are regarded as the oppressive majority in India and secondly, it raises the issue of rape as an act of war. Women on both sides suffer rape; a familiar and shocking truth the world over.

Islamic fundamentalists were further angered the following year when Nasreen gave an interview to the Calcutta Statesman. On 9 May 1994, Nasreen denied statements attributed to her in the Statesman in which she is said to have stated that the Koran should be revised thoroughly. Her comments actual-ly referred to the reform of shariat law, a concept reflected in the Constitution of Bangladesh.

Women's movements and other Bangladeshi organisations have, likewise, called for reforms of personal law and such demands, until a short time ago, have been regarded as part of the normal democratic process in Bangladesh. It is disturbing that this discourse should now become outlawed in a country with a tradition of open political debate.

The renewed demands for her death demonstrate the increasing political role and power of religious extremists in Bangladesh.

On 9 June 1994, five days after the arrest warrant issued against Nasreen, two editors and two journal-ists also received arrest warrants under the same offence. Nasreen went into hiding for fear of her life as violent demonstrations continued.

CAMPAIGNIn defence of the secular tradition inherent in Bangladeshi nationhood, WAF formed an alliance with other groups in Britain such as Amnesty International, Article 19, Index on Censorship and International PEN and the Defend Taslima Nasreen Campaign was created to challenge the fundamental-ists' blatant infringement of basic human rights.

Members of WAF have been active in briefing the press, passing an early day motion in parliament and lobbying MPs to sign petitions and write letters of protest to the Bangladeshi government. WAF and many other supporters circulated a petition in London's East end for the Bangladeshi community to sign. Nine pages of signatures were gathered to express dismay that the government of Bangladesh has not taken adequate measures to safeguard the rights of women who have clearly been targeted by fundamentalists.

The Defend Taslima Nasreen Campaign also protests against the Bangladeshi government's failure to prosecute these fundamentalist groups for issuing death threats. Nasreen's case demonstrates the "immense power of intimidation"(5) that fundamental-ists wield and many people live in fear of speaking out and not receiving the protection and support of the state.

The Bangladeshi government must guaran-tee freedom of expression for all its citizens.
WAF comprehends the vital battle that must be fought against fundamentalist forces who invoke reli-gion to exert a singular, binding and hegemonic ide-ology. We reaffirm our support for Taslima Nasreen and vow to defend basic human rights.

We abhor the stifling dogmas of religious fundamentalists and remain committed in our fight to thwart their oppres-sive ambitions, at home and abroad. We stand solid-ly behind Taslima Nasreen, and others like her, in their battle to end destruction and discrimination in the name of religion.

The Nasreen case has already provoked intermit-tent clashes between fundamentalists and defenders of secularism but the vilification and accusations against Nasreen are thought to be part of a broader attempt to denigrate the credibility of women public figures, which will seriously effect the position of all women and serve to undermine the future of pro-gressive ideas in Bangladesh generally. Millions died for this progress and their sacrifice will be betrayed if Bangladesh continues to be dictated to by religious extremists.

The plight of Taslima Nasreen still remains unre-solved, her court case is pending and scheduled for hearing in January 1995. It is likely to be a long and embattled process. If convicted, she could be sen-tenced up to two years in prison; yet another step closer to a repressive Islamic state which will further curb individual and minority rights and result in the demise of women's freedom in Bangladesh.

From her imposed exile in Sweden, Nasreen is yearning for her homeland and she touchingly expressed how rice has become for her a cherished symbol of Bangladesh.

I sit at a table and eat rice. I don't eat it so much as play with it, move it around in my band. I keep my fingers next to the plate, near tbe pickles, near the vegetables and then I put them in the rice and play with it. With my left band I swat away flies. Except this is an airconditioned room in Sweden and there are no flies.

What am I swatting away, then, sadness?' (6)

Nasreen is not alone in receiving death threats for her explicit writing. The Prime Minister of Mauritius, hostage to the threat of fundamentalist pressure, banned The Rape of Sita, Lindsey Collen's book about sexual violence against women, after Hindu fundamentalists objected to the title.

While Sita is a very common woman's name in Mauritius, it is also the name of the revered wife of the god-king Rama in the Hindu epic Ramayana, who symbolises the ideal Hindu wife, pure, chaste and virtuous. The Prime Minister declared that the book was "blasphemous" and an "outrage against public and religious morality". He also called on the Commissioner of Police to take action against the author.

On a brief visit to London from 9 to 11 November 1994, Lindsey Collen explained that the book was immediately withdrawn from circulation by the author and publisher to create time and space for an open debate. The future of the book, however, remains uncertain. Collen continues to demand her full rights as a citizen and has made use of police services both to paint out slanderous graffiti and to investigate threats she receives. (7)

Lindsey Collen, unlike Taslima Nasreen, is very active in political organisations and has wide support in Mauritius from within the left wing party, Lalit, from Muvman Liberasyon Fam (Women's Liberation Movement) and from Mauritian women generally. Muvman Liberasyon Fam who is actively campaign-ing for the ban to be lifted has urged concerned peo-ple to write letters of protest to the Prime Minister of Mauritius.(8)

WAF has joined the international cam-paign to defend Lindsey Collen to oppose this kind of censorship and repression and prevent it becoming a further precedent for giving in to fundamentalist pressure. Lindsey Collen's The Rape of Sita has been awarded the 1994 Commonwealth Writer's Prize (Africa Region).

Other writers experiencing harsh censorship, threats to life and accusations of blasphemy are Wole Soyinka (Nigeria), Alla Hamed (Egypt), Maghib Mahfouz (Nobel Prize for Literature Egypt), Bei Dao (fugitive poet from China), Paul William Robert (Canada) and Salman Rushdie (Great Britain). Editors, journalists and publishers are also targets of attacks by religious fundamentalist groups.(9)

Persecution and harassment of Lindsey Collen and Taslima Nasreen by fundamentalists is an obvious attempt to suppress the individual's right to criticise religious belief and practice. These cases high-light the use of religion by secular authorities against dissenting voices, and accusations of blasphemy are invoked to censor and silence women in opposition to Government.

The charges brought against both women are inappropriate and misleading in countries with no blasphemy laws. Secular authorities, as evidenced in these cases, are willingly sacrificing basic human rights to pander to fundamentalist forces.

On her fleeting and cautious trip to London, 10 to 13 December 1994, Nasreen explained that her'case has provoked demands by fundamentalists for the intro-duction of a blasphemy law in Bangladesh similar to that which operates in Pakistan, and which frequent-ly carries a death penalty. This is inspired by the example set by Britain and most other European countries (with the exception of France and Belgium) who all have blasphemy laws.

In Britain the blasphemy law can still be invoked at any time and was last used successfully to prose-cute Gay News in 1979. The case concerned the work of a distinguished writer James Kirkup. His poem, 'The Love That Dares To Speak Its Name' was accord-ing to Kirkup "an attempt to see Christ anew in terms of modern sexual liberation".10

In 1976 Mary Whitehouse began a private prosecution for blasphe-mous libel against Gay News and its editor Denis Lemon. Three years later they were both found guilty and fined significant amounts.

Nasreen urges that a campaign is mounted to abolish the blasphemy law in Britain because when invoked it is used negatively and promotes intoler-ance. She believes that the Bangladeshi government will attempt to introduce a blasphemy law to satisfy fundamentalists whose support they depend upon to stay in power.

The 'Salman Rushdie affair' and the mass demon-strations of Muslims in protest - not only against The Satanic Verses and its author but also to demand that the law of blasphemy contain a provision to protect Islam - inspired WAF to strongly contest the blasphe-my law in the UK.

The existing law protects Christianity alone and this discrimination in the law is unacceptable in a democratic society. To extend the law to accommodate other religions is equally unac-ceptable, however, as any blasphemy law is an infringement of freedom of expression. Equal treat-ment of religious beliefs as well as freedom of expression can best be achieved through dialogue and not by criminal prosecution and punishment.

Article 19 state that "freedom of expression is in the end a precondition for freedom of religion and there- fore for respect for religious convictions or beliefs" (11)

Fundamentalist movements throughout the world feel threatened by pluralist systems of thought. Nasreen, while being victim of threats to her life and liberty, has maintained an identity, freedom and voice beyond ideology and her writings are a bedrock of humanitarian ideals.
Letters of support to Taslima Nasreen or of protest to the Bangladeshi authorities can be forwarded through Women Against Fundamentalism. Taslima Nasreen's book Lajja (Shame) is available in Britain, published by Penguin, India and distributed by Soma (ISBN 0 14 024 0519).
NOTES on WAF website

10 Ju1Y 1993 Government of Bangladesh bans Taslima Nasreen's book "Llaia"- an account of anti- Hindu riots in Bangladesh in 1992.
23 Sept 1993 Fundamentalist leader offers 50,000 tk 4750) for Taslima's fiead.
4 Oct 1993 16 Imams demand trial and banning of Taslima's books.
8 Oct 1993 Islamic leader demands hanging of Taslima Nasreen.
27 Oct 1993 At Dhaka press confer- ence Islamic leader denounces Taslima Nasreen as "apostate" for denigrating Islam, and criticises freedom of speech guarantees as cover for provacative acts against one particular religion
9 May 1994 Publication of inter-view with Taslima Nasreen in Indian newspaper in which she is said to have stated that "the Koran should be revised thoroughly".
11 May 1994 Publication of Taslima Nasreen's rejoinder in Indian news- paper denying that she made such comments.
18 May 1994 After publication of interview in Bangladeshi newspa-pers, Taslima Nasreen again issues rejoinder.
21 May 1994 Procession of Islamic fundamentalist group demanding execution of Taslima Nasreen. Newspaper offices attacked.
4 June 1994 Warrant of arrest issued against Taslima Nasreen fol-lowing sanction of Home Ministry. Alleged to have committed an offence, Linder section 295 (a) of the Penal code, of "hurting religious sentiments".
8 June 1994 Demands for public hanging of Taslima Nasreen.
9 June 1994 Arrest warrants issued against two editors and two journal-ists of national newspapers under same offence alleged against Taslima Nasreen. Taslima Nasreen goes into hiding for fear for her life as violent demonstrations continue.
3 August 1994 Taslima Nasreen appears in Dhaka High Court to face charges of insulting Islam. She is granted bail of 5,000 tk (183).
10 August 1994 Taslima Nasreen flees Bangladesh to Sweden with acceptance of the Bangladesh Government and at the invitation of the Swedish Pen Club, an interna-tional writer's guild.
11 Dec 1994 Brief visit to London under the auspices of International Pen.

Nasreen urges groups and indi-viduals to continue to campaign to remove charges against her and defend human rights. Her lawyers are dealing with her case which will begin in January 1995 and she will only return to Bangladesh if the Government provides a clear guar-antees for her safety.
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