Taslima Nasreen has no Lajja!
Ok… so the headline got your attention. Now to the real issue. Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen’s leave to remain (Visa) in India is to expire soon and her essay “Let’s Burn The Burqa” (read here) has appeared in Outlook.
Taslima’s courage is admirable – not because she is a woman, but because she refuses to be a “well-behaved” woman. Imagine leaving your home and living in exile and taking on the orthodoxy that claims to represent the interests of the Muslims. That too in a country like India where the politicians either sleep with the Islamic establishment or target the ordinary Muslims with vicious and brutal attacks. For anybody interested in India’s schizophrenic attitude towards religious minorities look up Godhra, Shah Bano Case, and the Salman Rushdie affair. For the ordinary Muslims it is like choosing between a rock and a very hard place. Anyway, every six months or so she has to queue up at the Indian immigration offices to apply for an extension of her visa. In her own words, “The uncertainty is very disturbing… Itâ€™s like standing at a bus stop all your life” (from The Telegraph feature on Taslima. Read here).
Now the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB), an influential Islamic body has crashed into her latest “provocation” asking for her to be thrown out of the country (read Times of India report here).
I wonder if the BJP, which did some grandstanding about abolishment of special constitutional priviliges based on religion would stand up and be heard. Given that the party’s contribution to feminism is the admittance and encouragement of neo-traditionalist women, one cannot expect fireworks.
We need to get over the right wing (and middle class) tosh about Taslima Nasreen fate being intrinsic to some backwardness of Islam. This is not about the incompatibility of outlook to modernity derived from certain religions (Just in case anybody seriously believing that material reality is based on divinity needs to have their brains checked).
Taslima’s fate is instead intrinsically linked to the growing influence of emotionalism in public life and the withdrawal of reasoning. Emotionalism is cheap and easy. Reasoning is a drawn out and painful affair. The sociology of life in industrial societies does not afford the average person the luxury of self-reflexivity and reasoning. Even if one manages it, the cost of acting upon it is quite high.
Okay, that was a digression… but India has its share of post-colonial record of intolerance against anyone who expresses a line of thinking outside the dominant, patriarchal, nationalist discourse. Recent examples abound:
- M. F. Husain
- Sisir Sahana
- Amir Khan
- James W. Laine
It is not enough to say that the zealots who take a crack at these folks are “backward” natives, the result of lack of education and exposure. If education and exposure were any variables that transformed people’s outlook, exposure to “modernity” in the west has not necessarily transformed many migrating communities. New communications technologies — such as phones, email, DVD etc — have instead helped these communities to maintain the spatial-temporal order. This has obvious implications for citizenship and shared values. Will the migrating communities share the values of the receiving communities? Defenders of liberty go on to argue why should they share these values? Freedom of expression happens to be one of them. Digression happening again…
Taslima Nasreen has just relocated her reasoning to another spatial location, but bought to the focus the universality of her views — that women’s bodies have been the battle flag of religions. In South Asia, the Burqa or veil is not a symbol of female affirmation. As she argues…
My mother used purdah. She wore a burqa with a net cover in front of the face. It reminded me of the meatsafes in my grandmother’s house. One had a net door made of cloth, the other of metal. But the objective was the same: keeping the meat safe. My mother was put under a burqa by her conservative family. They told her that wearing a burqa would mean obeying Allah. And if you obey Allah, He would be happy with you and not let you burn in hellfire. My mother was afraid of Allah and also of her own father. He would threaten her with grave consequences if she didn’t wear the burqa. She was also afraid of the men in the neighbourhood, who could have shamed her. Even her husband was a source of fear, for he could do anything to her if she disobeyed him.
This is a deeply personal account — the ground up view — that is often overlooked. This is purely her fight and the media needs to have the spine to give her the space for the same. Other than herself, anybody else commenting on what women should and should not wear is taking us back to the middle ages. The issue is not that her critique of the Burqa will cause a mass discarding of the the tent. For the essentialist people of her ilk symbolise a threat to their monopoly and fascism. She sails in the same boat as Husain. On a lesser dramatic level, such oppression of individualism exists in almost every Indian household and family.
So the issue here is not feminism. Number 1, women are not a homogenous body – they are individuals. Number 2, the crucial issue here is freedom of expression. AIMPLB’s response demonstrates their utter fear and contempt of women and any freedom of expression. And they have a powerful weapon on their side – the law and a political culture that caves in easily. All it needs is a gathering of 50 or more shouting louts burning a few effigies.
A Hindustan Times editorial of Dec 25 does well to raise the issue: “…features within Article 19 (and Article 14) that need close scrutiny. For instance, the phrase â€˜reasonable restrictionsâ€™ in the case of speech and expression needs careful delineation. Who decides what is reasonable? The arbiter in this caveat is often the argument that if freedom of speech and expression create public disorder, then the clause regarding â€˜reasonable restrictionsâ€™ comes into play. In other words, if I do not like a painting or a film or a book, all I need to do is to collect 50-100 people, a simple enough proposition in our country, and create public disorder.” (read here)
Taslima’s website is here