Hanifa Deen, a Melbourne-based author of Southasian descent writing narrative non-fiction (as she calls her genre), has built a career exploring issues related to Islam and women, and particularly to the mutual misunderstandings that often arise between Islam and the Western world. Understandably, Deen has long been intrigued by Taslima Nasrin, best known for the controversy surrounding her 1993 Bengali novel Lajja (Shame), which prompted threats against her life from Islamic fundamentalist groups and forced her into a protracted exile from Bangladesh in 1994. Deen included a section about Nasrin (I follow this more common spelling, though Deen prefers ‘Nasreen’) in her 1998 work Broken Bangles, and she returns to the subject in her latest book, the extensively and painstakingly researched On the Trail of Taslima.
This, however, is not the book’s only avatar. In a slightly different form, On the Trail of Taslima was originally released in 2006 by the US publisher Praeger under the title The Crescent and the Pen: The Strange Journey of Taslima Nasreen. But the US edition was only published in hardback and sold at high cost, and was barely distributed in Australia, where Deen lives. Deen correctly felt that the story, and the enormous amount of research that went into it, deserved wider recognition. In 2012, she purchased the paperback rights from Praeger and revised the manuscript to reflect intervening political developments and changes in the lives of her protagonist and informants. She then re-published it herself under her preferred title, which captures the essence of the work and the motivations behind it far better than the original one.
Deen struggled to get the original version of the book published. This, she believes, was a sign of the times, and of Nasrin’s peaking global celebrity. The author states on her webpage:
I was writing against the grain, daring to look behind the official story; threatening a much-cherished mythology, subverting stereotypes and poking fun with an irreverent sense of humour at two opposing fundamentalisms ie. Islamic fundamentalism and Postmodern fundamentalism.
The recent re-publication is certainly timely, considering the unrest in Bangladesh this spring over questions of secularism, including fundamentalist demands for anti-blasphemy laws. Interestingly, Deen has been strangely silent on the book’s history, making no mention of it at the de-facto launch of On the Trail at Canberra’s Asia Bookroom in April. This reluctance raises a question mark, but does not eclipse the important story recounted.
‘A slow dance of passive aggression’
Nasrin, a medical doctor by training, began writing in the 1980s. Prior to 1994, she wrote regularly in Bangla for Dhaka newspapers, and also published several novels and collections of short stories, poems and columns. Her Selected Columns was a bestseller, with over 100,000 copies sold in Bangladesh within a year of publication in 1992. Nasrin’s forthright and provocative style, as well as her frank prose on sexuality and the female body, made her a controversial figure. Then as now, critiques of institutionalised religion, sexual discrimination and violence against women recur throughout her work.
But the Nasrin saga, as far as most of the world is concerned, began in 1993 with the publication of Lajja, a fictionalised portrayal of the atrocities suffered by Bangladeshi Hindus in the wake of the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, by Hindu nationalists the previous year. To call the English translation of this work a novel would be rather too generous – it devolves into bullet-points on several occasions. But some, notably the novelist Amitav Ghosh, saw this departure from the conventions of the novel as Lajja’s greatest strength. Ghosh praised the book’s “breackneck urgency” and “unembellished prose”, describing Nasrin’s style as “polemiction”, a merging of fiction and polemic that is “perhaps the most appropriate possible literary response to the oppressive banality of contemporary religious extremism.” That blend certainly caught on in Bangladesh, and Lajja’s original Bangla edition quickly sold over 60,000 copies. That was before the ruling centre-right Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) banned it about six months after its release, likely embarrassed by the issue of minority repression being brought up for public examination.
She found a contradictory figure: bold but fearful, an icon of free speech but highly intolerant, and, despite her reliance on the benevolence of others while in exile, someone who struggles to maintain relationships
Compounding this potentially career-damaging ban, in May 1994 Nasrin allegedly told an Indian newspaper that she believed the Quran should be thoroughly revised, since it discriminated against women. Nasrin later denied this, stating that she had, in fact, only called for the revision of Sharia-based family law, but Sujata Sen, the journalist who broke the story in India, stuck by her report. In the ensuring furore, Nasrin gained international attention after an obscure fundamentalist group issued a fatwa sentencing her to death, put a price on her head and demanded her trial on charges of blasphemy. Shortly after, in June 1994, the Bangladeshi government issued a warrant for Nasrin’s arrest for insulting Islam. The Western media labelled her a ‘female Salman Rushdie’, and the case received massive international attention. Nasrin went into hiding, then fled to Europe, where Sweden took her in. She stayed there for several years, then began touching down all over the world before arriving in New Delhi, where she currently lives. It is this long period of exile that Deen focuses on most.
Deen spent several years travelling the world – Stockholm, Copenhagen, Helsinki, Berlin, Cologne, London, Paris, New York, Atlanta, Dhaka and Calcutta – trying to uncover and piece together the enigma of Taslima Nasrin, both the actual person and the mythology that has engulfed her. Deen spoke to Nasrin’s friends and enemies, family members, ex-husbands, colleagues, literary figures, activists, lawyers, and Nasrin herself, recording 200 hours of interviews. What she discovered was a highly contradictory figure: bold but fearful, an icon of free speech but herself highly intolerant, quick to offend and be offended, and, despite her reliance on the benevolence of others while in exile, someone who finds it difficult to maintain prolonged relationships. ‘Narcissist’ seems an apt descriptor, though Deen doesn’t use the word herself. Deen experienced Nasrin’s displeasure first-hand after upsetting her in what was to be their final meeting, after which she did not hear from Nasrin again. Deen writes:
I was sorry that she had decided to withdraw from me, but slowly I came to understand that I had joined a select group of people who’d had similar experiences. By denying you the opportunity to resolve misunderstandings, you remain attached to Taslima, like it or not, while she simply withdraws herself and moves on, in a slow dance of passive aggression.
The writer as subject
Deen’s insights into characters she meets on her travels make the text a literary narrative, sometimes like a detective story. In turning her informants into characters in their own right, partly a result of her enthusiastic but somewhat hyperbolic style, Deen also inserts herself into the story. On the one hand, this is a strength of On the Trail, but in reality there is too much of the author’s ego present for this to be purely a book about Nasrin. Deen is now quite possibly the world expert on Nasrin, but it is apparent that this has not been an entirely healthy obsession. The author herself writes:
I’d been playing literary sleuth for a long time now – perhaps too long. I was becoming troubled by my isolation and the single-mindedness of the pursuit. Was I becoming as fixated on my own version of Taslima’s long journey into self-exile as her Dragon Slayer friends?
Although it would be disingenuous of Deen to attempt to erase her own presence in the narrative and only focus on the ‘facts’, what we end up with is so author-centred that many of the events crucial to understanding Nasrin’s case and her position in Southasian society are not recounted as promptly as they should be. Even readers with reasonable prior knowledge of the story – a category that excludes many Southasians, and the vast majority of people not from the region – might come away from the book still hazy on the details. On the Trail does narrate Nasrin’s history, but in fragments. Deen’s narrative structure actually follows her own travels rather than Nasrin’s.
Deen is understanding as well as critical, and believes that Gleichmann’s romanticism is shared by all who want their dissidents to be superior in every way
Deen is fond of hyperbole and cultivates an aura of suspense; the combination makes her style grating at times. Her use of the metaphor “dragon-slayers” – for people within organisations such as PEN and Amnesty International who make careers out of saving the distressed – is overdone. So are many other analogies. A Bangladeshi mufti is described as “a political sorcerer who with a wave of his hand, a puff of smoke and a crash of cymbals could conjure up a tamasha at will and then, with another wave of his hand, make everything vanish into thin air as if it had never happened.” Literary awards and cultural honours are described as a minefield: “no matter how carefully one treads, a bomb will go off, leaving the battlefield strewn with literary carcasses.” The author overuses the dramatic license acceptable in narrative non-fiction.
The pacing of the text is another issue. Deen is frustratingly slow in parting with information. Who is Gabi Gleichmann? What role did he play in keeping Nasrin in Sweden? Why did they fall out? These are all important questions in understanding Nasrin and her situation, but Deen drags the exposition out over several chapters, hinting at shenanigans that, ultimately, would have been far more interesting had they been revealed earlier on. Numerous sections are left hanging, ending with tantalising teasers such as “What had happened?” This reticence to get to the point was also evident at Deen’s reading at Asia Bookroom in Canberra in April. She gave away so few of her findings that many in the audience were alienated, coming away no wiser for having attended. Her coyness and repeated suggestions that the audience would have to buy the book to actually learn anything came across simply as bad literary manners. There was no clarity on what the book was really about. Nasrin, yes, but how exactly? Was it a biography, a non-fiction detective story, or more of a travel narrative? The nagging sense of confusion continues till the last.
On the Trail is particularly strong in its research, and in its acute scrutiny of liberal Western freedom-of-speech campaigners. The book is driven by an interrogation of what Deen calls the opposing fundamentalisms of Islamism and postmodernism. Though her criticisms of PEN in particular can sometimes appear rather ungenerous, we must also remember that such groups, though doing necessary work, are an industry in themselves and are not devoid of politics and power struggles. To not put them under occasional scrutiny as Deen does would be naïve.
Sweden hosted Nasrin for several years, largely due to the campaigning of Gleichmann, then the president of Swedish PEN. He had fought for Sweden to take up Nasrin’s cause, portraying her – through genuine belief, it seems – as a female Rushdie: an intellectual, whose life was under serious threat in an Islamic country. As Deen recounts through her discussions with Gleichmann and also other Swedish and European free-speech campaigners, once the reality of Nasrin’s persona and situation dawned on them, they realised that their view of Nasrin was just a fiction. Not only was she difficult to get along with, she was also not an intellectual in the sense that Rushdie is, being unable to comment on feminism and women’s issues in cross-cultural settings, or on non-Bangla literature. Nasrin’s opinions on religion were intolerant, but by the time Gleichmann and many other supporters realised the irony of holding her up as a symbol of tolerance, the popular myth of Nasrin had already taken root. But Deen is understanding as well as critical, and believes that Gleichmann’s romanticism is shared by all of us who want our dissidents to be superior in every way. Perhaps most importantly, Nasrin’s story reveals the unspoken expectations behind Western assistance to dissidents. Deen writes:
People who come from Third World countries are expected to be beholden for the moral commitment and concrete assistance they receive from the ‘good people’. Surely if the West is morally committed to helping the poor, then the poor should at least be damn well grateful! And if they don’t act appreciatively as you expect, then they must be arrogant and ungrateful.
This created particular problems in Nasrin’s case, as by all accounts she was indeed arrogant. That alone, even disregarding her other opinions, ensured Nasrin’s complicated reception in exile.
To be fair to the activists Deen interviews, they come across as self-reflective about their own mistakes, and willing to discuss these and make them known to the world. Swedish PEN activist Eugene Schoulgin opines, “We looked at her through the eyes of the Western world, although we didn’t realise we were doing this at the time.” Gleichmann admits that he and other members of Swedish PEN had not actually read any of Nasrin’s work when they took her in; had they read her work they may have been more cautious.
How did a figure who had achieved acclaim in the West as a champion of Bangladeshi and Islamic women’s rights dismissed so readily by the very same women?
Deen also describes how, to make the case globally visible and thus pressure the Bangladeshi government into dropping the charges against Nasrin and guaranteeing her safety, many free-speech campaigners and media organisations chose to portray Bangladesh as rabidly Islamic and fundamentalist. Liberal, educated Bangladeshis – those most likely to have sympathised with Nasrin – were annoyed by the portrayal of their country as akin to an Iranian-style theocracy, a conflation that of course has many problems. Bangladeshi pride was wounded, and this cost Nasrin many supporters in her native land. Nasrin’s portrayal as a ‘female Rushdie’ also did her damage at home and in the Islamic world; as the scholar Ali Riaz noted in a special issue of South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal in 2008, Nasrin’s detractors embraced the analogy to argue that she was no different to Rushdie, and that her treatment should be no different either.
The West’s willful ignorance of Bangladesh and Islam is best embodied by Warren Allen Smith, a New York-based “professional humanist” and friend of Nasrin’s. Deen writes:
Their friendship is helped by his lack of interest in politics and his naïve understanding of South Asian societies, so that he is inclined to believe whatever he is told and thus arguments are avoided. He believes that Bangladesh is divided into ‘good Muslims’ who supported Taslima and ‘bad Muslims’ who didn’t; the latter will always be a problem, not only for Taslima but for the whole world, he told me before we parted. For Warren, it is as simple as that.
In the text, Smith stands in contrast to many European activists, who seem naïve but not necessarily ignorant. This, though, makes their choice to demonise Bangladesh as a tactic to help Nasrin all the more problematic (or, to put it less generously, sinister).
Western ignorance, whether wilful or naïve, tends to be particularly striking when it comes to matters concerning non-Western women. Deen’s initial fascination with Nasrin stemmed from her observation that, while in Bangladesh doing research for Broken Bangles, her earlier work about Bangaldeshi and Pakistani women, Bangladeshi feminists had little positive to say about Nasrin. Why was a figure who had achieved acclaim in the West as a champion of Bangladeshi and Islamic women’s rights dismissed so readily by those same women? Deen discovered early on that this was largely due to Nasrin’s brashness and alienating style, her dismissive attitude towards the Bangladeshi feminist movement, her intolerance of contrary opinions, and her lack of sensitivity to what – for better or worse – the majority of Bangladeshi women believed was the right way to live their lives. Deen writes:
Standing back from it all, it was easy for me to see how Taslima Nasreen and the women’s movement could have used one another. Women knew what she meant when she cried out, ‘The whore is always a woman, never a man!’ Taslima possessed a natural ability to communicate in a language that everyone understood – she was fearless and had grown indifferent to personal slander.
So why did the alliance never materialise? The author continues:
The answer lay in the totally disparate views they held of the women’s movement and how to go about introducing change. The differences intensified when many women and men began to feel that Taslima Nasreen was not truly ‘progressive’, but a self-interested ambitious woman who lacked real commitment to the causes they had spent decades fighting for collectively.
Bangladeshi feminists had learned to be pragmatic, and pragmatism generally helps feminism survive in the long term. They worked on matters of employment, law, health and education. They were also cautious about taking a stance that might have been perceived as being critical of Islam, knowing this would alienate the majority of the women they wanted to help, and so instead focused on the rights promised to women through Islam.
These realisations leave Deen asking why perspectives on women’s interests from different parts of the world can sometimes seem contrary. This, again, comes down partly to Western arrogance and the deployment of feminist concerns for international political ends, in this case subjecting Bangladesh to the indiscriminate scorn often reserved for Islam in the West. Analyzing Nasrin’s case in the journal Inter-Asia Cultural Studies in 2005, Manmay Zafar, a scholar at Jahangirnagar University in Bangladesh, wrote:
Nasreen’s step outside Bangladesh was invariably read, in the last decade, as tantamount to tearing off her burqa and lifting her veil, although in reality, a writer of Nasreen’s repute, living in an expensive apartment in the capital city Dhaka, and belonging to the highbrow literary society of Bangladesh, would have never been required to wear any kind of veil, let alone an Afghani burqa covering her from head to toe.
Sadly, considering that On the Trail was published independently in Australia, it is unlikely to be readily available in Southasia to readers who would have the most interest. This is more than just a shame: How can the problems that the book raises – especially the lack of tolerance and understanding between the West, Southasia and the Islamic world – be overcome if scholarship that attempts to highlight these issues is not easily available? Unfortunately, this means such rifts between mindsets will remain embedded. In the same paper cited above, Zafar seems to believe that Deen’s Australian location undermines her authority to speak about Nasrin. It is Deen he refers to in the following passage:
A recent documentary, entitled Fearless: The Price of Freedom, shown in the Australian SBS TV channel in 2003, significantly failed not to produce a stereotypical version of Nasrin. Here, Nasrin’s detailed reflection on her predicament was inserted with and authenticated by none but an Asian-Australian writer who was researching a book on her. What is particularly problematic is that the director did not deem it necessary to interview anyone from Bangladesh to introduce a different perspective on the affair. The result is a documentary, predominantly packaged for the West, which greatly silenced and effaced other voices – be that of the Government of Bangladesh, secular intellectuals, feminist organisations, Nasreen’s fellow writers, general readers or the fundamentalist faction which declared the infamous fatwa on her.
The broad thrust of Zafar’s argument is indisputable, and agrees with what Deen demonstrates in On the Trail: Westerners assuming they were doing a good deed by ‘rescuing’ Nasrin did too little research, and as a result perpetuated a swathe of damaging half-truths about Bangladesh, Islam and Southasia. It is a problem if the director of the SBS documentary on Nasrin did not feel the need to include Bangladeshi perspectives, and that the film feels packaged for a Western audience. This says much about how serious the West is about understanding Bangladesh and Southasia. But it is not fair to question the authority of an expert who has done her research simply because she is Australian. To do so disregards the efforts of many Westerners who are trying to understand Southasia from a nuanced and multi-dimensional perspective. It hints at a nativism that ultimately stifles the sort of cross-cultural understanding that Zafar appears to want. Deen’s willingness to dig beyond the stereotypes is precisely what Southasia and the West needs.
~Elen Turner is a writer and editor based in Kathmandu, Nepal, and New Zealand.