Taslima Nasrin On A Rebellious Childhood, Facing Death And Being A Woman In Islamic Bangladesh
In a hard-hitting speech, Taslima Nasrin talks about the oppression women face, and why they need to fight for their freedom in the face of oppressive customs.
‘YOU GO GIRL’
At the first edition of the Reader’s Digest Chronicles, a series that aims to document, collect and curate untold stories and unite them with new perspectives, author Taslima Nasrin made a surprise appearance. She enthralled the audience with a powerful rendition of her poem, ‘You Go Girl!’, and went on to narrate her life story—a remarkable saga of courage, resilience and resistance. She delved into her past, sharing anecdotes from her girlhood in Bangladesh and the challenges she has faced in 24 years of exile, to talk about her present. Quite fittingly, her vow to fight for women’s rights resonated with the theme of the event, ‘What I talk about when I talk about women’.
Here is the full transcript of Taslima Nasrin’s inspirational speech:
The name of my poem is ‘You Go Girl’.
They said—take it easy …
Said—calm down …
Said—stop talkin’ …
Said—shut up …
They said—sit down …
Said—bow your head …
Said—keep on cryin’, let the tears roll …
What should you do in response?
You should stand up now
Should stand right up
Hold your back straight
Hold your head high …
You should speak
Speak your mind
Speak it loudly
You should scream so loud that they must run for cover.
They will say—‘You are shameless!’
When you hear that, just laugh …
They will say—‘You have a loose character!’
When you hear that, just laugh louder …
They will say—‘You are rotten!’
So just laugh, laugh even louder …
Hearing you laugh, they will shout,‘You are a whore!’
When they say that,
Just put your hands on your hips,
Stand firm and say,
‘Yes, yes, I am a whore!’
They will be shocked.
They will stare in disbelief.
They will wait for you to say more, much more …
The men amongst them will turn red and sweat.
The women amongst them will dream to be a whore like you.
You know, I’m the only storyteller [here] who is not English-speaking; whose mother tongue or first language is not English. Who doesn’t write in English.
I’m a Bengali writer. I write in Bengali. I think in Bengali. So my English is not good but I will try to say something about my life.
Yesterday it was Women’s Day. And I say, 364 days for men and one day, only one day for women? Even that one day is not for women. Even that day is not for us. Because many women yesterday, I know, were raped, many were murdered. Hundreds of women were victims of sex trafficking, they were victims of domestic violence. And those women didn’t know it was Women’s Day yesterday. But we still ‘celebrate’ Women’s Day. I hope one day we will create a better society and no woman will be oppressed.
Then we would not need to celebrate Women’s Day anymore. Every day would be our day.
I was born in my Mymensingh in Bangladesh, to a Muslim family. It was a very conservative society. I was lucky because my father decided to send me to school. He wanted me to go to school and then college and he wanted me to become a doctor. In school I saw so many girls, so many classmates of mine, who were made to quit their studies because they were forced to marry when they were 13 or 14. They wanted to continue with their education but couldn’t because their parents decided that they should marry instead.
At that time, married girls were not allowed to study. Many of my classmates wanted to be doctors or engineers but couldn't … My father wanted me to become a doctor so I studied to become one. When I was a child, I saw the role of women in my family. My grandmother was just like a slave; she was treated like a child-bearing machine, nothing else. Even though my father was a doctor, an educated person, my mother was oppressed by my father. My mother was [a] very good student but she had to quit school because my grandparents didn’t want her to study post marriage. And I didn’t want a life like my grandmother or my mother, so it was good that I got a chance to study. My father was a secular man but my mother was religious. She asked me to read the Quran and pray. But I always wanted to know the meaning of the verses that I read. When I asked my mother, she said, “You don’t need to know the meaning of the verses in the Quran, you just need to read the Quran in Arabic and Allah will be happy.”
I was a curious child; I wanted to know what I was reading. One day, when I was 12, I got a Bengali translation of the Quran and read it, and found instances of inequalities and injustices against women. So I stopped believing in religion. When I studied other religions, I found that they too are also very much against women. Women are oppressed through religion, culture, customs and tradition. I didn’t know why we did not protest against these misogynistic cultures. I started writing about this when I was young, just a teenager. I had seen my eldest brother write poems so I wanted to try it out too. When I was 17, I started publishing and editing literary magazines.
It was not easy for a girl to publish magazines or get published in the ’70s. From 1978, I started editing a poetry magazine, which received contributions from Bangladeshi poets as also from poets in West Bengal. I was writing poetry and stories in a country where most people think it is okay for men to write. But not women.
For a woman to start writing would mean she had some problems. That such women were unhappy. And that unhappy women either committed suicide or became prostitutes—or, worse, they started writing. I started writing in that kind of environment. I mostly wrote about women. The women I had seen in the street, the women I met, the suffering of women I heard about.
I always aspired for greater freedom. I didn’t have enough of it. My father, even though he wanted me to study, did not allow me to go outside: to go to the cinema, to the theatre, to a concert, or even to a friend’s house. My brother had that right to do whatever he wanted to do but I didn’t. My sister didn’t either. Throughout my childhood I have seen how girls and women are oppressed.
My mother wanted me to wear a burka. She wore the burka and I didn't like it. In the ’70s not many young women wore burkas, but now that the country has been Islamized, many women can be seen wearing hijabs and burkas. It is very sad: Why are women required to wear hijabs and burkas? Because men can have sexual urges if they see them. So women have to cover up. It is very strange too: Women also have sexual urges. I don’t think anybody wants to admit that. Going by this logic, women might also experience sexual urges if they see men but, hypocritically, men do not have to hide their body.
When I studied medicine, nobody wore a hijab or burka. Now almost every woman wears it. When I look at the country that so changed in the last 20 years, it alarms me.
When I started writing, I chose to write about women’s rights, the oppression against women, on our fight for equal rights and freedom.
When I was writing about women’s rights, I had not read any books on feminism. I just saw what was happening in our society and wrote about that, encouraging women to fight for their right. And many women told me that my writings inspired them, gave them strength.
I told myself I must not stop my writing. I must continue because it touched lives. I was encouraged by women to keep writing even though misogynists hated me. Religious fundamentalists too, because I criticized religious oppression against women; many Islamic fanatics were angry with me.
In 1993, they issued a fatwa against me. They put a price on my head; and instead of supporting me, the Bangladeshi government took action against me. The government filed a case against me on the grounds of hurting religious sentiments. I had to go into hiding, and, ultimately, I was forced out of my country. Twenty-four years ago my life in exile started. Because I talked about women who are oppressed because of religion, culture, customs and traditions. Had I talked against the culture of misogyny, it might have been okay, but the problem starts when I talk against religion, especially Islam.
When I criticize Hinduism, or Christianity, Judaism, or Buddhism, they don’t issue decrees against me, but when I’m critical of Islam, then the fundamentalists start issuing fatwas. Hundreds and thousands of fanatics took to the street demanding my execution by hanging. And what I found astounded me: Islam had been exempted from critical scrutiny that applied to other religions.
Freedom of expression is very important for democracy and without the freedom of offending, freedom of expression can not exist.
I believe in this. I am against all kinds of fundamentalism. To get equality, we need to fight fundamentalism. We need to fight against the misogynistic cultures that are currently plaguing our society. And I will continue with my writings, and I will continue my fight until death, wherever I stay.
I would love to be in India; I feel at home here. Perhaps people think I shouldn’t have the right to offend others. I do not intentionally want to offend anybody but I like to express my feelings, which are often inconsonant with others, and so it would offend them. If you want change, there will be some who would get offended. If you want to create a society where no women is oppressed, if you want to create an equal society, you have to hurt the misogynists.
Their getting offended shouldn’t stop your progressive thoughts and limit your expression of ideas. Throughout history we have seen a handful of people change society. Not millions but a few who bring in change. I only hope that the governments support us: those of us who need their freedom to express their views against systemic oppression. Clearly, the religious have the freedom to express their views but not the non-religious.
Whenever non-religious people express their views, the government and fanatics go after them and try to drown out their voice. But in a democracy everyone should enjoy the same rights equally. I do not think that if you believe in religion then you can also believe in women’s rights because religion, as it is, is not compatible with women’s rights, human rights and freedom of expression. In our subcontinent we see fanaticism on the rise. I hope that one day good sense will prevail and lead to the creation of a better society.
We don’t need religious laws. We have Islamic laws that date back to the seventh century. Recently triple talaq was abolished and everyone thought that Muslim women finally have freedom. No. They don’t.
All religious laws should be abolished. Women are still oppressed because of them: marriage, child custody and inheritance laws. There is no equality. I hope that, one day, Bangladesh will get a uniform civil code, based on equality. I don’t think all women will become free and have access to their rights if we have uniform civil codes. But it will be a start.
We have to fight misogyny and men also have to participate in this movement. It is not the women’s duty alone to get equality for women, it is the men’s duty too. Because it is our society, and both men and women need to make it better.
Women have proved that they can do what men can do.
Women are in the military; women are part of the police; women are doctors, engineers. Men haven’t proved they can do what women can. Child care is still thought of as a woman’s duty. No! It’s a man’s duty too. They should also try to do everything that women traditionally did.
I don’t want to discard men from the women’s movement. Men are in a powerful position. Men can help to make their society better. With gender equality, men don’t have to live with their slaves—they can live with their equal partners.