The University Record, February 20, 1996

Nasrin discusses baring emotions to public at Humanities Institute conference

By John Woodford
News and Information Services

Taslima Nasrin, a writer who had to flee her country in June 1994 after her latest novel was banned and certain Muslim clerics sanctioned any of their followers to kill her, spoke about human emotion and read several of her poems in a packed Rackham Assembly Hall Feb. 8.

"Everyone is not similarly moved by similar experience," the Bangladeshi writer noted in her talk "I Make Most of My Emotions Public, " the initial event for the Institute of the Humanities' two-day conference "Unruly Emotions, Disorderly Conduct."

"I feel disturbed when a child cries, but there are many who can see the pictures of thousands of children killed in Rwanda or Bosnia without batting an eyelid," Nasrin continued. "A scene that shocks me may be quite enjoyable to others---for example, a scene of rape in a film."

At the core of all of the 33-year-old writer's work is a fierce defense of the rights of women, an insistent call for equality between the sexes, and bold description and documentation of both officially and religiously sanctioned abuses against women not only in Bangladesh but in other societies as well.

In her talk she cited ways in which certain of her emotional responses, or her willingness to display them, have differed from those prevalent in Bengali society. When her former husband died several years after their divorce, she "wrote passionately of the happy days gone by, days we had spent together." Bengali women tend to conceal any fondness for a former husband, however, because it deters other men from viewing them as suitable wives, Nasrin said.

When a famous actress committed suicide after her husband said he planned to divorce her to marry another woman, Nasrin used her newspaper column to accuse the dead wife of "betraying other women."

"If a girl with such talent could not stand up on her own feet and accept the challenge, what would the ordinary girl do?" said Nasrin. In her country, however, one is expected to lament for the dead rather than to accuse them of cowardice.

The event that led to Nasrin's exile was the destruction of a 400-year-old mosque in India by Hindu fundamentalists in December 1992, and subsequent vengeful beating and killing of Hindus in predominantly Muslim Bangladesh.

"These heinous acts shocked me," Nasrin said. "The result was a small novel named Lajja (Shame). I felt ashamed for my country, for the hopelessly inactive political parties there, and for myself, too. How can I describe this reaction of mine to destruction and death---shame, pity, agony, anger or hate? Maybe all of them---emotion can create many feelings at the same time."

Nasrin's criticism of her government and her declaration that her country would be better off if it abandoned use of the Koran led to the price on her head, demonstrations calling for her death and the government's warrant for her arrest on the ground that she had disturbed people's "religious feeling."

She fled first to Sweden but now lives in Germany, where security personnel regularly check up on her. She said she was surprised but remains undaunted by the opposition she stirred in her homeland.

Would she change anything she has written or done? "No," she said. "I do not mind being persecuted and hunted by mullahs [clergymen] and their frenzied followers. I am happy that I have penetrated a bastion of patriarchy guarded by frantic religious orthodoxies."

Nasrin said she believes all countries should discontinue recognition of any religions as having a state status. She described in a poem she read after her lecture the application of an Islamic law that endorsed the stoning of a woman with precisely 101 stones. The woman's husband had abandoned her six years earlier and she remarried after being unable to find him. The local cleric condemned her as an adulterer. Men rounded her up, buried her to the waist and killed her with 101 stones.

At the conclusion of Nasrin's presentation, the audience gave her a standing ovation. Several Muslim students who opposed her statements told her, however, that the unjust practices she had described arose from the cultures where they were committed and not from Islam, and that her false depiction was aiding "enemies of Islam."

The Institute for the Humanities conference closed with a short preview of the opera Jackie O, with a score by Michael Daugherty, professor of composition, and libretto by Wayne Koestenbaum of Yale University. Several students from the voice department performed the "Flame Duet" (sung by the characters Jackie Onassis and Maria Callas), the aria "I Am Curious Yellow" (sung by Aristotle Onassis) and other works from the opera, which will have its world premiere in Houston in March 1997.

Other participants in the conference were political scientist Michael Rogin of the University of California, Berkeley, who examined the "cognitively empty and destructive category" of race; and historian Laura Engelstein of Princeton University, who reported on her research on a sect of Russian men and women who sexually mutilated themselves as an "ecstatic practice" in 18th-century Tsarist Russia.