Vol. 20 No. 1 - Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. -
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Freethought Heroine 2002
"Because of Religion . . ."
This acceptance speech was delivered on Nov. 23, 2002, at the 25th annual convention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Westin Horton Plaza Hotel, San Diego.
Taslima Nasrin with her "Freethought Heroine" plaque. Photo by Brent Nicastro.
By Taslima Nasrin
I was born in 1962 to a Muslim family in a small town called Mymensing in what then was East Pakistan. Now, after it gained its independence, the country is called Bangladesh.
My childhood was not much different from that of other girls of my generation. Like other girls of a middle-class family, I was sent to a coeducational school until I reached the age of seven. When eight, I had to go to a girls' school. From 6th to 10th grade, coeducational schools were not open to girls. After 10th grade, I went to a girls' college. My father disapproved of my going to a coeducational college where boys were, but he had no alternative when he decided that I should study medical science.
My father, I should add, was different from other fathers. Girls frequently dropped out of school when they were fifteen or sixteen, ages at which they often were given into marriage by their parents. Few girls had a chance to continue their studies, for after an arranged marriage they were not allowed to continue studying in school or college or university nor could they take a job. They became totally dependent upon their husbands, in other words.
It was usual for us children, in the early morning, to read the Qur'an in Arabic, and like all other children in Bangladesh I did this. But I found myself asking questions. I wanted to know what I was reading, what the meaning of the Qu'ranic verses was. Our language is Bengali, not Arabic, and it was impossible to know the meaning of the verses that we read. We just read, that's all. When I asked Mother to tell me the meaning of what I was reading, she explained that the meaning is not important, that what is important is that Allah will be happy that I am reading the Qur'an in its original language.
When I was thirteen or fourteen, however, I found a book that translated the Qur'an into Bengali. To my surprise, I found Allah saying that men are superior, that women are inferior. Men can have four wives. Men can divorce their wives any time they want. Men are allowed to beat women. Women are not allowed to give testimony in some legal cases. Women are not allowed to inherit the property of their father equally with their brothers. Women are supposed to wear veils.
Islam does not consider woman a separate human being. Man was the original creation and womankind was created secondarily for the pleasure of man. Islam considers a woman as a slave or sexual object, nothing more. Woman's role is to stay at home and to obey her husband, for this is her religious duty. Women are considered weak, so they should be taken care of, their bodies and minds, their desires and wishes, their rights and freedom must be controlled by men. Islam treats women as intellectually, morally and physically inferior. In marriage, Islam protects the rights of men and men only. Once the marriage is consummated, women have no rights whatsoever in this field. The Qu'ran gave total freedom to men, saying 'Your women are as your field, go unto them as you will (2.223).'
Taslima signing books after her speech at the FFRF convention. Photo by Brent Nicastro.
Women are told to run to their husbands wherever they are, whatever they do. It is their duty. The Hadith says that two prayers that never reach the heavens are (1) those of the escaping slaves and (2) those of the reluctant woman who frustrates her husband at night.
Islam considers women psychologically inferior. Women's testimony is not allowed in cases of marriage, divorce, and hudud. Hudud is the punishment of Islamic law for adultery, fornication, adultery with a married person, apostasy, theft, robbery, and so forth. If any woman is raped, she has to produce four male witnesses to the court. If she cannot, there is no charge against the rapist. In Islamic law, the testimony of two women is worth that of one man. In the case in which a man suspects his wife of adultery or denies the legitimacy of the offspring, his testimony is worth that of four witnesses. A woman does not have the right to charge her husband in a similar manner.
Women are not allowed to inherit the property equally with their brothers. In the case of inheritance, Allah says, a male shall inherit twice as much as a female (4.11-12).
And after all the rights and freedom, after getting all the sexual pleasure and pleasure of being the master, Allah will reward the men with wine, food, and 72 virgins in Paradise, including their wives of the earth. Allah says, "Eat and drink happily, in return for your works." They relax on luxurious furnishings, and we match them with beautiful virgins (52.19-20). Near them shall be blushing virgins with large beautiful eyes which will be like hidden pearls (37.48-49).
And what is the reward for the pious woman? Nothing. Nothing but the same old husband, the same man who caused her suffering while they were on earth.
I was a student of science, so it was hard to accept that the sun moves around the earth, that the moon has its own light, and that the purpose of mountains is to support the earth so it will not fall down somewhere. I came to suspect that the Qur'an was not written by Allah but, rather, by some selfish greedy man who wanted only his own comfort. Then I read the Hadith, the words of Muhammad. I found different events of Prophet Muhammad's life in which, when he had problems, Allah solved them right away. For example, he was sexually aroused by seeing his daughter-in-law, so Allah sent him a message saying he could marry her because his son was adopted and not a real son, so the marriage was therefore justified. Further, he created a new rule, that Muslims could not be allowed to adopt any child.
Muhammad married 13 times, one of his brides being six-year-old Ayesha. Allah, he said, told him that he was allowed to enjoy his wives, his female slaves and all the the captive women he had. He put Ayesha in a veil because he was jealous and did not want his friends looking admiringly at her. Allah, he said, told his friends that they should not go to the Prophet's house any time they want but if they go, they should not look at any of his wives or ask any of them for something. He was so jealous that he introduced the veil for his wives and, ultimately, for all Muslim women. Even though widow-marriage was legal, he made it illegal for men to marry any of his own wives when he himself died. It became clear to me that Muhammad had written the Qur'an for his own interest, for his own comfort, for his own fun.
So I stopped believing in Islam. When I studied other religions, I found they, too, oppressed women. When I stopped practicing religion and made some offensive comments about religion to my mother, she became both nervous and furious, sure that I would go to Hell, and she started praying for me.
My father, a physician, had a scientific outlook but was very domineering. He did not allow me the freedom to play, to go outside, to meet friends, to go to the cinema or theatre, or to read any book that was not in a syllabus. He wanted me to earn a medical degree so he could say that one of his children followed his path. On the one hand, he wanted me to be independent, but on the other hand he wanted to find a good match for me inasmuch as educated men often desire an educated wife.
As I grew up, I kept observing the condition of women in our society. My mother, for example, was a perfect example of a woman oppressed. She had been given into marriage when she was but a child, she was a good student in school, but she was not allowed to continue her studies. My grandfather and my father did not want her to study, for what they wanted was for her to be a good housewife, a good mother, a good caretaker.
She was unhappy from the first day of the marriage. My father never loved her, he was promiscuous, and she knew that he had affairs with other women. In frustration, she sought refuge in religion. Unloved and not respected by her husband, she became religious. As a result, I came to think that this was foolish and unworthy of a mother. Although I was supposed to respect both my parents, I could not. I could not respect my father's being such a cruel and brutal person. Throughout my life he beat me, even when I was 30 years old! He loved to beat children, his theory being that unless children were beaten they would become spoiled. He had come from an illiterate, poor farm family, yet had succeeded in becoming a medical doctor.
In our house, I grew up with much fear, having to keep inside my heart all my desire for freedom and curiosity for the outside world. I was not allowed to step outside the house except to go to my school or college. As a result, I developed a passion for reading books, fiction, poetry, essays, anything. But I had to hide the books from my parents. And I had another passion: to write poetry.
Growing up, I naturally had the belief that girls surely must be inferior to boys, for boys could play in a big field whereas girls had to play with their dolls in a corner of the house. My brothers could go anywhere they wanted, could watch any games, could play anything they wanted to play. I could not. My sister could not. I was told that girls were not made for such activities, that their role was to stay home, learn how to cook, make beds, clean the house. My mother was not the only woman who was oppressed, for I saw my aunts, my neighbors, and other acquaintances who were playing the same roles, that of being oppressed. In our minds, torture of women was not oppression but, rather, tradition. We become accustomed to tradition. As I grew, I realized that I was a part of the tradition but also that I was being oppressed the same as my female classmates and, later, my female patients.
Whether they were poor or rich, beautiful or ugly, had blue or black or brown eyes, had white, black or brown skin, were unmarried or married, illiterate or literate, clever or stupid, all were oppressed. Everywhere women were oppressed. And all because of male-devised patriarchy, religion, tradition, culture and customs.
Nobody told me to protest, but I developed a strong feeling that it was important to fight against oppression. Nobody asked me to shed a tear, but I did. When I started writing prose that was published weekly in the newspapers, I found my protests got the attention of readers, that people either hated me or they loved me. I became accustomed to receiving extreme hate and extreme love letters. One by one, my books got published. Not only publishers but also newspaper editors wanted me to write. With perseverance, I became a bestselling author.
However, those who hated what I wrote developed demonstrations against me, and people began protesting by marching through the streets. In 1992 at a national book fair, my books were publicly burned, and I was thrown out of the event. A "Smash Taslima Committee" commenced, and I was not allowed to visit the book fair any more because the fair's leaders said my books were causing the problem.
In 1993 I returned, but this time the fundamentalists and an angry mob assaulted me publicly, breaking into the bookshop where my books were kept. I may have received the biggest literary award, but at the same time I received the biggest hate compaign ever. The government then confiscated my passport, asking me not to write any more if I hoped to keep my job as a medical doctor in a public hospital. In protest, I quit the job. My passport, however, was not returned until a year later, when a human rights campaign outside Bangladesh's borders successfully pressured the government.
I continued writing. In my poetry, prose, essays and novels I have defended women and the minority community that is being oppressed. I cried loudly for equality and justice, justice for all people whatever their religion or gender. I spoke loudly on behalf of secularism. I spoke against any religious laws in which women are oppressed. My book was banned by the government.
Women continue to be flogged, they are stoned to death. Women are raped, are accused of allowing the rape, and the rapists are set free. Women have been suffering from trafficking, from slavery, from all sorts of discrimination. Men have thrown acid on women's faces and walked away as happy men. Women are not considered as human beings, not by religion, not by so-called tradition. For a couple, the most unwanted thing is a female baby. If a female baby is born, either the wife gets a divorce for her crime of having given birth to a female or the wife must spend her life with disgrace.
By writing books, I wanted to do something constructive, I wanted to help women understand that they are oppressed but do not need to be. I wanted to encourage them to fight for their rights and freedom. My voice gave women the chance to think differently. That, however, did not make the religionists or the male chauvinists happy. As a result, the fundamentalists took the stand of absolutely not tolerating any of my views. They objected to a woman's breaking the chains and becoming free, and they could not tolerate my saying that the Qur'an is out of place, out of time, and that secular law with a uniform civil code for women is a necessity. Extremists broke into newspapers' offices, sued my editors, publishers, and me.
They demanded my execution by hanging. Hundreds of thousands of people were on the street. They called a general strike all over the country, insisting that I be killed. The government, instead of taking action against them, took action against me. They filed a case against me, charging that I had hurt the religious feelings of the people. I had no other alternative but to go into hiding. While in hiding, I was fortunate in receiving the support of the western democratic governments, feminists, and human rights organizations. They literally helped to save my life. Actually I thought I would be killed, for daily I saw mobs of people demanding my death. Police looked everywhere for me, knowing that the fundamentalists wanted me dead. Anyway, I survived. The government threw me out of the country. Since then, I have been trying to go back to my country, but it is impossible. I am not allowed to go back to my country.
Meanwhile, three of my books are banned in Bangladesh. I have written 24 books, and cases have been filed against me in order to ban the other books. Recently, a Bangladeshi court sentenced me to one year in prison for having written what I did.
Everything is because of religion. Because of religion there is bloodshed, bloodshed everywhere. Because of religion there is hatred among people. Because of religion there is ignorance all over the world. Because of religion there is illiteracy, there is poverty. Because of religion there are injustices and inequalities. Because of religion millions of women have been suffering, they are flogged, they are burned, they are stoned to death. Because of religion my books are burned and banned. Because of religion I was thrown out of my country.
But we can do something; we can eliminate all the problems of humanity that are caused by the belief in God. It is dangerous to follow the religious scriptures in this modern world. Not only the Qu'ran, all the religious scriptures are out of time, out of place.
Both the Judeo-Christian bible and the Qu'ran clearly accept and condone slavery. Jesus explicitly tells slaves to accept their roles and obey their masters. No one in the world today would defend chattel slavery in any public forum or allow it under any legal code. Neither fundamentalist Christians nor Orthodox Jews talk about animal sacrifice or slavery. In those countries in which Sharia law exists, where stoning for adultery and amputation for stealing are legalized, no legitimization of slavery is ever mentioned. Polygamy and concubinage are clearly accepted in the Old Testament but nowhere in the Judeo-Christian world are either of these practices legalized. Thus, insistence of the continuation of practices which denigrate, oppress and suppress women under the guise of scriptural reference is a hoax. Such practices could and should be delegitimized, as chattel slavery has been delegitimized.
I have been writing about all this. But my freedom of expression has been continuously violated by the authorities. I could not reach the readers of my country. My latest book, My Girlhood, is banned in my country. My autobiography, I realize, is not just my life story. It is the same story that thousands of women know about. It tells how Muslim women live in a patriarchal country that has hundreds of traditions in which girls and women suffer. I have looked back into my childhood days and described the life of being a female child, told how I was brought up, explained that I had privileges that many others did not have. I was able to study and become a medical doctor, something which thousands of girls cannot even dream about. I wanted to show where and how I grew up and what made me think differently, what made me do things differently. It is important to give other women some strength to revolt against the oppressive system that I grew up under and which still continues for them.
I told the truth. I expressed everything that happened in my life. Normally it is taboo to reveal rape or attempted rape by male members of one's family. Girls shut their mouths because they are terribly ashamed. But I did not shut my mouth. I did not care what people would say to me or to my family. I know well that many women feel that I am telling their untold stories, too. We, the victims, should cry out loud. We need to be heard. We must protest loudly and demand our freedom and rights. We must refuse to be shackled, chained, beaten and threatened. We have only one life, and we demand to live it in happiness.
If women do not fight to stop being oppressed by a shameful patriarchal and religious system, then shame on women! Shame on us for not protesting, for not fighting, for allowing a system to continue that will affect our daughters.
My story is not a unique one. My experiences, unfortunately, have been shared by millions of fellow sufferers. In my book, I cried for myself. I also cried for all the others who have not been able to enjoy the productive life of which they are capable and which they most assuredly deserve! We who are women no longer must remain solitary, crying softly in lonely places.
I do not regret what I have done so far, what I have ever written. Come what may, I will continue my fight against all the evil forces without any compromise until my death. I am all the more committed and all the more determined to my cause.
This is a brief story of what I have experienced. Meanwhile, I do not regret one word that I have ever written. My regret is that I have been unjustly condemned by evil and ignorant people, people who say they preach love and knowledge.
January/February 2003 Excerpts