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Taslima Nasrin: "Are These Stones Not Striking You?"

A half hour video recording of the event is available from The Sikh Times upon request.

The Sikh Times, Nov. 13, 2003

On November 12, 2003, Taslima Nasrin, the Bangladeshi doctor-turned-writer, best known for her novel Lajja (Shame), made a rare public appearance at Tuft University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

Lajja (1993), which portrays atrocities committed against Hindus by Muslim fundamentalists in her native Bangladesh, was banned by her government. In 1994, the Bangladeshi government exiled Nasrin following the issuance of a fatwa (religious edict) calling for her head.

Ayesha Jalal, professor of history at Tufts University, introduced Nasrin with a glowing tribute to her courage and conviction. Quoting noted writer Amitav Ghosh she said, 'Nasrin's cause has become a global cause . . . for reasons that have little to do with her writing.'

Dressed in black, as if to indicate a permanent state of mourning, Nasrin spoke about her travails for about half an hour and bravely fielded questions from the audience for twice as long.

In her speech, she said, 'Our language is Bengali, not Arabic. It is impossible [for us] to know the meaning of the verses that we read [in the original]. . . . My mother told me that the meaning was not important. What was important was that Allah [God] will be happy that I was reading the Koran in the original language.'

When later on Nasrin read a Bengali translation of the Koran she found it to be oppressive toward women. She said, 'I came to suspect that the Koran was not written by Allah but by some selfish greedy man who wanted only his own comfort. It became clear to me that Muhammad had written the Koran for his own interest, for his own comfort, for his own fun. . . . When I studied other religions, I found they too oppressed women.'

She later individually critiqued Christianity, Judaism, and Hinduism. She spoke of how the Indian government disallowed her from entering India after she made comments critical toward Hinduism while visiting India.

Her steadfast view was that states that are not secular cannot be just, especially toward women. And although she did not blame religion alone - she said that women in Bangladesh are oppressed in the name of 'patriarchy, religion, culture, tradition, and customs' - her audience seemed shaken by the ruthlessness of her critique of Islam.

When asked if she saw any redeeming qualities in Islam, she said that her mother was 'a very religious and good person' and that religion should be a personal affair, not a corporate one.

While Nasrin had her share of supporters in the audience, apologists for Islam dominated the Q&A session.

Auditi Guha, a journalist, held two Tufts professors in attendance responsible for 'inciting the students' and leading the charge against Nasrin.

One of the professors (not Jalal; the other one, whose name I did not catch) generated some laughter in the audience when he quipped, 'I have a sneaking suspicion that you've based your opinion of Islam on a very poor translation of the Koran!'

He went on to ask, 'Do you have any regrets for having hurt the sentiments of those who believe in Islam?'

While Nasrin refused to apologize for speaking her mind ('I do not regret for what I have done so far, for what I have written'), her insistence on portraying her personal opinions on Islam as 'the truth' betrayed an uncompromising stance not unlike that exhibited by her persecutors.

Reacting to Nasrin's unrelenting denunciation of religion, someone in the audience asked, 'If, as you claim, religion is the source of all evil, how do you explain the oppression that visits communist societies, such as the former Soviet Union, despite the separation of church and state?'

Attempting to rescue the deliberations, I implored, 'Doesn't your frontal attack on Islam serve to distract from the worthier task of targeting the real villains in this episode - that is, the actors, including the state and the elite, who are leaning on religion merely to justify their chauvinism?'

Speaking with The Sikh Times after the event, Raghava Kalyanaraman, a Massachusetts-based artist, perhaps captured it best in describing Nasrin as 'more of an artist than a communicator.'

Raghava, 'the youngest Indian artist ever to exhibit his work in Washington' (Shyam Bhatia, Deccan Herald), presented Nasrin with one of his paintings - a portrait of Nasrin. Actually he sold it to her for a dollar since, as he explained, 'I never give my paintings away for free!'

A couple of ladies in the audience suggested that perhaps Nasrin lacked empathy (with believers) and that she was hurting her own cause by not being more diplomatic in her assault on Islam.

Nasrin countered rather effectively by reading out her poem entitled, Noorjahan, based on actual events (Noorjahan was stoned to death by fundamentalists in Bangladesh).

They have made Noorjahan stand in a hole in the courtyard
There she stands submerged to her waist, her head hanging
They're throwing stones at Noorjahan
Stones that are striking my body
I feel them on my head, forehead, chest, back
And I hear laughing, shouts of abuse

Noorjahan's fractured forehead pours out blood, mine also
Noorjahan's eyes have burst, mine also
Noorjahan's nose has been smashed, mine also
Noorjahan's torn breast and heart have been pierced, mine also

Are these stones not striking you?

They laugh aloud, stroking their beards
Their tupis [caps] shaking with jubilation
As they swing their walking sticks
They with quivering and cruel eyes speed to pierce her body, mine too

Are these arrows not piercing your body?

At the conclusion of the poem, Nasrin was not the only one in the room with misty eyes.

Although Nasrin writes exclusively in Bengali (or, as Bengalis prefer to call it, Bangla), English translations of her most popular books are available via Internet bookstores.

After the event, Nasrin stepped outside to smoke a cigarette and instinctively switched to Bengali while speaking with Bangladeshi reporters. She seemed oblivious to those of us standing around her who could scarcely understand a word of what she was saying.

Having spent the last decade or so in exile in France and Sweden, where she was unable to practice medicine, Nasrin recently joined The Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government as a research fellow. Her research project is entitled, 'Concept and History of Secularization.'