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Thursday, January 7, 2010

A writer's voice... Meyebela: A Bengali Childhood by Taslima Nasrin (book review)

'Humankind is facing an uncertain future. The probability of new kinds of rivalry and conflict looms large. In particular, the conflict is between two different ideas, secularism and fundamentalism. I don't agree with those who think the conflict is between religions or between the East and the West. To me, this conflict is basically between modern, rational, logical thinking and irrational blind faith. To me, this is a conflict between modernity and anti-modernism. While some strive to go forward, others strive to go backward. This is a conflict between the future and the past, between innovation and tradition, between those who value freedom and those who do not.'
- Taslima Nasrin

I don't have much to add to that! But as I launch into this review of a book by Taslima Nasrin (sometimes spelled Nasreen), first, a disclaimer: personally, I don't believe in any organized religion. Where some find enlightenment, I tend to find superstition and abuse of power. (Ahem - note - I draw a distinction between religion, or "organized religion," cultural/political institutions created by and mainly for people, and spirituality, which is an innate, inborn trait which all humans and probably animals too experience and which all should have the right and freedom and respect from others to express in their own creative ways, as long as their practices cause no harm to others.) Islam has a lot to answer for in how it treats women and girls, but then so does every other "major religion" I've ever heard of.

At the same time, I see no reason to argue about the relative degree or history of oppression of one religion or society over another, because each new generation has another chance to bring change and improvement and that's what matters. Having travelled in Muslim countries, I can't help thinking of them as places where people live - people like me - and not as stereotypical hotspots of this or that alien characteristic. I'm a feminist yet the global celebrity who fascinates me most is a Muslim man, Shah Rukh Khan (see poster for his new movie, somewhere over there in the left-hand column), so go figure. The world is complicated and so are human beings. We're also rich in possibility.

Lately I've been hearing an idea (or perhaps meme) repeated a lot (in Three Cups of Tea; by Obama in numerous speeches; in TED Talks; and, most recently, in a book I've been asked to review, Half the Sky) - to the point where I'm beginning to hope that this one might bear fruit. It's this: that the only sure way to help a country toward economic and social progress is to make education freely available to girls and women. But what about individuals who don't have that freedom? How do they survive? Here is a girl who grew up in one very oppressive environment yet managed to remain whole, and even throw off her shackles to some extent, at least enough to get her story out to the world. If you wonder how it's possible, you might be very interested in this book and the others that follow, by the same author. And if you wonder how she gets away with it - she doesn't, entirely. She's still engaged in a very brave, dangerous, and ennobling cause: to keep her own voice and tell the truth in a world that wants very much to silence her.

Meyebela: My Bengali Girlhood; A Memoir of Growing up Female in a Muslim World
By Taslima Nasrin. Steerforth Press, 1998 (in Bengali); 2002 (in English)

"Meyebela" means "girlhood." At least, it does to the author. In fact she made up the word herself because she knew she'd had a childhood as a girl, yet her language, Bengali, lacked a term for it. She grew up to be a writer, but to write about her girlhood she had to invent a word for that part of her life. This is the starting point for a tale which shows, in many ways, how the very existence of girls and women was invalidated by the society into which the author was born. Hers was, essentially, a closed circuit, a clan within a larger society that permitted absolute control by men over women; therefore a girl's childhood and even fate was determined almost entirely by chance, dependent as it was upon the character of the adults surrounding her. One woman she writes about was never even given a name by her family; she was just allowed to exist as a drudge, or slave.

Meyebela is also the story of how the author survived these conditions by becoming a writer, using her language to understand her world and to create herself as a whole person. But the story doesn't stop there, because to this day her culture continues to attempt to silence her voice.

This is the first book in a series of memoirs about Taslima's harrowing yet inspiring life. In this volume, she remembers her time from early childhood in the mid 1960s until her adolescence in Bangladesh.

In the Sixties, the society of Taslima's girlhood was tortuously bound by class, vestiges of colonialism, and religious extremism colored by ancient tradition, all made even worse by the terrible social disruption of the civil war that eventually established the Bangladeshi state in 1971. (See footnote at end, about that.) As she relates it to the reader, her experience of this world is strictly circumscribed by the boundaries of her family, with only brief forays beyond her home. Within an extended family, the world of the clan could have provided a luckier child with a refuge from what lay outside, and certainly this must be the case in many families. But in Taslima's case, physical and psychological abuse were the order of the day: rape, incest, bullying, lying, superstition, and the madness of religious fanaticism were the norm.

Bringing the reader into this world, the author succeeds in showing these realities as they appeared to the eyes and mind of the child she was then. The child sees it all, but is powerless to alleviate her own suffering or that of those she loves (such as that woman with no name, mentioned above). Her survival tool is her intellect: she struggles to understand her world, never shying away from what she sees. And, like the poet Anna Akhmatova, who in solitary confinement etched her poems into soap, Taslima tucked her memories away against the day when she might bring them to light. She does that, here.

Taslima Nasrin is a very fine writer. As she relates key events of her girlhood in Meyebela, they are seen from the sometimes odd perspectives of a child's incomplete comprehension. Developing insights are then layered into the narrative and revealed in a roundabout fashion, as Taslima follows first one theme in her inner life, then doubles back to another, and then another... with repetitions of these areas of concern as the years go by, each adding new depths of insight. It is an amazing achievement, to present so coherently a journey through the labyrinthine growth of a young mind. At the book's end, as she enters adolescence, still somehow in possession of her judgment, one can see how Taslima might grow up--as she in fact did--into a physician, writer, and internationally acclaimed human-rights activist.

 Some readers may question the portrait the author paints of her society, if they are unaware of such extremes in human culture. Some of the bizarre customs Taslima relates are said by other writers to be survivals from early tribal society, and not typical of Islam generally. (After all, as many of its adherents point out, in the context it was created, Islam presented women with improvements in their condition, such as property rights, which exist elsewhere now in Muslim societies but seem to have been nonexistent in Taslima's society.) But then, aren't all "great" religions cobbled together out of weird ingredients from many sources? At the same time, Taslima's dysfunctional family recalls similar families in other countries (including our own), in which isolation permits all kinds of madness to flourish unchecked. Cults of all kinds seem to have similar characteristics, as do child abusers, in that they thrive in (and require) a sort of isolation from the rest of the world.

However, the extremism of the death fatwa declared against Nasrin in the 1990s by Muslim clerics, and mass demonstrations calling for her public execution in both Bangladesh and, later, even in Kolkata (Calcutta) where Indian Bengalis had given her refuge, would seem to confirm that in a world where very strange customs and laws are not unheard of, hers was an extreme case. And these threats to her life and continued attacks on her at public gatherings all over the world only confirm the accuracy and continuing timeliness of her account of religious extremism.

The author's website and subsequent volumes of memoirs catch us up on post-Meyebela events in her life. Ironically, given much of the Muslim world's hatred of her, the author's literary works transcend her identity as a Muslim. Her real subjects are a vision of "modernity" in which humans transcend their irrational habits, and the universality of the female experience -- for example when she writes of the rape of a Hindu woman by Muslims during riots (the novel Lajja, or Shame). For anyone versed in basic feminist theory (say, Mary Daly's GynEcology), Taslima's forthrightness in sexual matters is clearly the most basic sort of threat to patriarchal clerics of any religion who base much of their power on the suppression and oppression of female sexuality. She issues a challenge they are not likely to ignore.

At the time Taslima was forced to flee Bangladesh, the country of Sweden, proving its credentials as an enlightened secular democracy, welcomed her and gave her citizenship, and with it the protection of its government. But because she was a writer, she eventually found it too painful to be separated from her own language, and emigrated back to Kolkata in India. This famous Bengali city, south of Bangladesh, has traditionally been a very progressive cultural center. Calcutta was the birthplace of many poets, artists, writers, political reformers and Independence fighters -- poet Rabindranath Tagore and filmmaker Satyajit Ray come immediately to mind -- and enjoys the reputation of a liberal intellectual center to this day. But even Kolkata eventually disappointed Taslima and her secularist supporters. Although India was created as a secular state meant to be tolerant of all religions -- a bulwark against extremism such as that which formed the Muslim states of Pakistan at the same time -- religious fundamentalists have by now gained enough influence there, too, to wage war on an outspoken woman like Nasrin. Rioters there demanded her death, forcing Taslima into the “protection” of the Indian government.

Although it was good that the Indian government recognized Taslima Nasrin's right to safety and guaranteed it, her protection strangely amounted to house arrest. The author was treated like a hostage, not allowed to communicate or see the world outside. She became extremely ill at that time, and in March 2008 she returned to Sweden, going directly to a cardiac clinic: literally, her heart was broken. Now, again she is separated from her language, but still she writes:

''Come what may, I will continue my fight for equality and justice without any compromise until my death. Come what may, I will never be silenced.''

Meyebela was the first of several volumes of autobiography. Reflecting her recent life, the titles of two of her most recent works, in Bengali, are translated as “Prisoners Poems” and “Women have no Country.” Her website includes updates, much wonderful poetry, and a way to connect with this amazing woman. Send her an email and tell her you're on her side. I think it's very important that women everywhere learn more about our silenced sisters, because (as our own forbears have spoken before us, of people in their time) as long as they are slaves, we cannot be free.

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Taslima Nasrin's website has a great collection of quotes about religion, from sources as diverse as Andrea Dworkin and George Carlin. My favorite:
''Religion convinced the world that there's an invisible man in the sky who watches everything you do. And there's 10 things he doesn't want you to do or else you'll go to a burning place with a lake of fire until the end of eternity. But he loves you!'' - George Carlin

For more, go to http://taslimanasrin.com/  and  http://taslimanasrin.com/index2.html

Wikipedia reports that Taslima now lives in New York. I hope there are plenty of Bengalis there, with whom she can trade ideas in the language she loves.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taslima_Nasrin

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*[Footnote: In case you've forgotten your history, Bangladesh was originally East Pakistan, half of a divided Muslim state arbitrarily separated from Northern India during the Partition of India at their Independence from Britain in 1947. During Taslima's girlhood, a civil war in East Pakistan raged against West Pakistan, creating the independent state of Bangladesh and leaving West Pakistan standing alone as today's Pakistan. Sadly, what was intended by its revolutionary supporters to be a secular democracy rather than the kind of theocracy that founded West Pakistan, Bangladesh is now in strife between moderates and Muslim extremists. (To the best of my knowledge; corrections welcome - this is not my field!) I recently watched a fascinating documentary, The World According to Sesame Street, which offers a glimpse of the current political situation, as an international crew works with local producers to create a Bangladeshi version of the children's program. And don't even get me started on the challenges to the country wrought by environmental degradation to the Bay of Bengal since British times, and rising waters from global warming, and the disruption of the monsoon cycle...]

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