I was born to a Muslim family in a small town called Mymensingh in what then was East Pakistan. Now, after it gained its independence, this country is Bangladesh.
It is a nation of more than 140 million, one of the most populous countries in the world, where 70 percent of the people live below the poverty line and more than half the population cannot read and write. There is insufficient health care, and infant mortality is high. Nearly 40 million women have no access to education nor do they have the possibility of becoming independent.
My childhood was not much different from that of other girls of a middle class family; mostly other girls’ schools; coeducational schools were not even open to girls. My father disapproved when I went to a coeducational college, 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, when they often were given into marriage by their parents. Few girls had a chance to continue their studies; after an arranged marriage they were not allowed to continue studying nor could they take a job. In other words, they became totally dependent upon their husbands.
It was usual for us children, in the early morning, to read the Qur'an in Arabic. But I found myself asking questions. I wanted to know what I was reading, what was the meaning of the Koranic verses. 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 my mother to tell me the meaning of what I was reading, she explained that the meaning was not important; that what is important was that Allah would be happy that I was reading the Qur'an in its original language.
When I was thirteen, I found a book that translated the Qur'an into Bengali. 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.
Islam does not consider a woman a separate human being. Man was the original creation; womankind was created secondarily, for the pleasure of man. Islam considers a woman as a slave or sexual object, nothing more. Women'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 body and mind, their desire 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 only. Once the marriage is consummated, women have no rights whatever. The Koran gives total freedom to men saying ' Your women are as your field, go unto them as you will (2.223)'
Women are told it is their duty to run to their husbands wherever they are, whatever they do. The hadith says that two prayers that never reach the heavens are: those of the escaping slaves and 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, the punishment of Islamic law for adultery, fornication, 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 property equally with her brothers. In the case of inheritance, Allah says, a male shall inherit twice as much as a female (4.11-12)
Then, after all the rights and freedoms, after getting all the sexual pleasure and pleasure of being the master, Allah will reward the men with wine, food, and seventy two virgins in Paradise, including their wives of the earth. Allah said, 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, who will be like hidden pearls. (37.48-49)
And what is the reward for the pious woman? Nothing. Nothing but the same husband, who caused her suffering while they were on earth.
As a student of science, 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. I came to suspect that the Qur'an was not written by Allah but, rather, by some 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 would not be allowed to adopt any child. Muhammad married thirteen 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 captive women he had. He put his beautiful young wife Ayesha in a veil because he 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 marrying widows was legal, he made it illegal for men to marry any of his own wives when he himself died. It seemed clear 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 that they, too, oppressed women.
My father, a physician, had a scientific outlook but was domineering. He did not allow me 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. Although he wanted me to be independent, he also wanted to find a good match for me inasmuch as educated men often desire an educated wife.
As I grew up, I continued observing the condition of women in our society. My mother, for instance, was the perfect example of a woman oppressed. She had been given into marriage when she was a child. She had been 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; they wanted her to be a good housewife, a good mother, a good caretaker.
I grew up with much fear, having to keep inside my heart all my desire for freedom and curiosity about the outside world. I was not allowed to step outside the house except to go to 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 must surely 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, I could not. My sister could not. I was told that girls were not made for such, that their role was to stay home, learn to cook, make beds, clean house. My mother was not the only woman who was oppressed; my aunts, neighbors, and other acquaintances playing the same roles; being oppressed. In our minds, torture of women was not oppression but, rather, was tradition. We become accustomed to tradition. As I grew, I realized that I was a part of this 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 brown eyes, had white, black or brown skin, were married or unmarried, literate or illiterate, all were oppressed because of male-devised patriarchy, religion, tradition, culture, and customs.
Nobody told me to protest; I just developed a strong feeling that it was important to fight against oppression. Nobody asked me to shed tears, 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 loved me. One by one, my books got published; then also newspaper editors asked me to write.
However, those who hated what I wrote organized demonstrations against me; people began marching through the streets. In 1992 at a national book fair, my books were publicly burned, and I was told to leave. A "Smash Taslima Committee" commenced; I was not allowed to visit the book fair. The fair's leaders said my books were causing problems. I returned; this time the fundamentalists and an angry mob assaulted me publicly, breaking into the bookshop where my books were kept. I received the biggest literary award, but at the same time the biggest hate campaign ever. The government then confiscated my passport and asked 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 after that when a human rights campaign outside Bangladesh successfully pressured the government.
I continued to write. In my work I defend women and the minority community that is being oppressed. I ask for equality and justice for all people whatever their religion or gender. I speak loudly upon behalf of secularism. I speak against any religious laws in which women are oppressed.
My book was banned by the government.
Women continue to be flogged, stoned to death, are raped. They are accused of allowing the rape, and the rapists are set free. Women have been subjected to trafficking, to slavery, to all sorts of discrimination. Men throw acid on women's faces and walk away happy. 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 of a female or the wife must spend her life in disgrace. By writing books, I wanted to help women understand that they are oppressed and do not need to be. I wanted to encourage them to fight for their rights and freedom. I wanted to give women a chance to think differently. This, however, did not make the religionists or the male chauvinists happy. As a result, the fundamentalists took the stand of not tolerating my views. They objected to a woman's breaking the chains; they could not tolerate that I said 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. The fundamentalists issued fatwa against me; set price on my head. They broke into newspapers' offices, sued my editors, publishers, and me. They demanded my execution by hanging. Hundreds of thousands people were on the street. They called general strikes all over the country, insisting that I be killed. Instead of taking action against them, the government took action against me. They filed a case against me, charging that I had hurt the religious feelings of the people. I had no alternative but to go into hiding. While in hiding, I was fortunate to receive the support of the Western democratic governments, feminists, and human rights activists. They literally helped to save my life. I thought it would be killed, for I saw mobs daily of people demanding my death. Police looked everywhere for me, knowing that the fundamentalists wanted me dead. Eventually, I was forced by the government to leave my country. Since then, I have been trying to go back but I am not allowed to go back.
Meanwhile, many of my books are banned in Bangladesh, and cases have been filed against me in order to ban the other books. A Bangladesh court sentenced me to one year in prison for having written what I did.
Because of religion there is ignorance all over the world. Because of religion, there is bloodshed. Because of religion there is illiteracy, there is poverty. Because of religion there are injustices and inequalities. Because of religion millions of women 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 that are caused by 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.
No one in the world today would defend chattel slavery in any public forum or allow it under any legal code. 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 continuation of practices which denigrate, oppress and suppress women under the guise of scriptural reference could and should be delegitimized just as chattel slavery has been delegitimized.
I have been writing about women's rights and freedom, but my freedom to write has been continuously violated by the authority. All parts of my memoir are banned in my country. My autobiography 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 are trapped. I have looked back into my childhood days, 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 give other women some strength to revolt against the system that I grew up under and which still continues for them. Normally it is taboo to reveal rape or attempted rape by male members of one's family. Girls shut their mouth, 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 stories, too. We, the victims should cry out. We need to be heard. We must demand our freedom and rights. We must refuse to be shackled, chained, beaten and threatened.
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 experiences, unfortunately, have been shared by millions. 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 have no country to call my own. The country where I was born and raised, whose land and people are intrinsic parts of my being and whose language and culture molded me, has forsaken me. When I was forced to leave Bangladesh, freethinking people from all over the world stood by me. I always wanted to return to my own land. Even when my mother was on her deathbed, the Bangladeshi government told me I could not return. A few years after that, when my father lay dying, I begged, pleaded, and cried to be allowed to see him if only for two days. The Government of Bangladesh refused to allow me entry.
For years, I have wandered from one European country to the next. I sought a home but found none. I fee like a foreigner everywhere. I thought of going to India; at least get a taste of home in India. But India kept her doors firmly shut. When I finally was given permission, I did not waste a moment. I eagerly chose India's state of West Bengal as my new home.
When I was physically attacked by the Muslim fundamentalists; instead of taking action against the fundamentalists, the government took action against me. I was kept under virtual house arrest by the Government of West Bengal, not only that, I was repeatedly asked to leave the state and, preferably, the country. After four months of this, a group of Muslim fundamentalists showed violent protest against my stay in India, in November 2007, I was bundled out of the state that had been my home for years. It is amazing that no action was taken against those had indulged in this violence, who burned vehicles on the streets, and who put a price on my head. I was the victim who was tortured. But the state to which I was sent did not want me. When one is driven out of one state, one is not wanted in other states, either. Finally, the central government was forced to take charge of me. They put me under house arrest. I did not have the right to meet any of my friends. I had no right to step out of my room. The Government of India ceaselessly pressured me to leave the country. But where would I go? If I could have gone back to Bangladesh, I would have. India, which prides itself on being the world's largest democracy, an allegedly secular state, could not shelter a person whose life has been spent in the cause of secular humanism. Not one significant political party, organization, or institution protested against the way in which I had been treated. Not many individuals who are regarded as the standard-bearers of secularism spoke up for me.
Unfortunately in India, if one is to be secular one must be a little pro-Muslim or pro-Islam. One must not say anything against Muslim fundamentalists even if they issue fatwas against women or writers and set a price on their heads. A 'secular Indian' must not talk against a Muslim, because Muslims are a minority in that country and a minority could be oppressed by the majority. So all Muslims should be defended, whatever the crime. If Muslim fundamentalists demand Muslim laws that are anti-women, secular Indians appear to acquiesce in the name of multiculturalism or in the name of defending Muslims. The hypocrisy is mind-boggling.
It is possible to fight fundamentalists, but it is not possible to fight powerful Governments. I was finally forced to leave India.
By speaking on behalf of justice, do I deserve to be chased out, made homeless everywhere, this is justice? Today, I am homeless every place. If there is no freedom of speech in an Islamic society, is there any hope of progress? Should the right to oppose Islam not exist? If an Islamic society does not check fundamentalism within itself, are we to assume that the notion of moderate or progressive people in Muslim society is but pretence? There is a popular belief that Islamic fundamentalists are just a minority, that most Muslims are moderate. How many 'moderate Muslims' have opposed the numerous fatwas that fundamentalists throughout the world are handing out? How many moderate Muslims have opposed the acts of cruelty that are being perpetrated on women by fundamentalists? Where are the women - those for whose sake I am writing? I do not see them opposing what is being done or taking a stance on my behalf.
This is my life. Instead of being able to live in the area of the world in which I was born and brought up, I am living in the West where I feel like an outsider. I am a stranger in Bangladesh, a stranger in India, and a stranger here in the West.
Exile, for me, is a bus stop, where I am waiting for a bus to go home.
The home I have consists of a family of people - men as well as women - who bravely oppose the darkness and ignorance. The hearts of people are my refuge, my shelter, my nation. The people who support me, sympathize with me, and express solidarity with me. They are my country, they are my home. My home is the love I receive from people all over the world. That is my home; the love I receive from free thinkers, secularists, and humanists. The love I receive from you, this is my home - and makes me more committed to my cause than ever.
I do not regret what I have done so far, what I have ever written. I will continue my fight against all the extremist, fundamentalist, intolerant forces without any compromise, forever.