A Disobedient Woman
A disobedient woman
Some people think that being moral is about following a set of social or religious rules.
Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasrin disagrees. But being true to herself has brought
her under the shadow of a fatwa.
I am a disobedient person. I have never obeyed the customs of society. I have never obeyed the laws of the state. Rejecting everything, unmanageable, untameable – I have always followed my own forward momentum. For this reason people have criticized me. All sorts of slurs have been made on my name. Wherever I have been seen, in the streets, at the shops, in meetings, at public occasions, I have had stones thrown at me and been abused. The Government of Bangladesh has filed a suit against me.
Why have I not followed the rules of society? The answer lies in my feeling that the discriminatory treatment of women in my society is inhuman. But it is also impossible for me to tolerate the state’s laws and the improper treatment of minority communities in my country. And I have protested against this cruelty and barbarity in my writing.
I have always valued rationality. When I was 13 years old my mother used to tell me that I should stay inside the house because it was improper for girls to walk around outside. She used to tell me to recite prayers, observe roza – the fasting period – and live behind my veil. But I couldn’t find any reasons for doing these things. Just because I was a girl I was meant to sit indoors, when in the fields outside, and on the riverbanks, boys of my age were happily playing together. This was something I could never accept. I was disobedient to my mother. I ran from the stuffy bedrooms of my house to the open spaces beneath the open skies and the beautiful banks of the river. People called me ‘the disobedient girl’.
When I grew up my parents and my relatives tried to make me marry someone I had never met. I told them I would never accept this type of marriage. Whenever I saw one of my young friends being forced to marry someone they didn’t know, I would advise them to be disobedient. I told them that they should run away before the wedding or else, during the marriage ceremony when the Kazi asked them if they were willing to get married, they should, in front of everybody, just say ‘no’.
It’s important to disobey social customs like these. If something seems ridiculous to your own moral understanding then why should it be blindly followed? I have seen many women who, despite being tortured by their husbands, still continue to live with them because if they did leave they would become, in the eyes of society, fallen or ruined women. A lot of women think that they should follow the customs of society – they believe they neither possess the intelligence nor the moral judgement needed to distinguish between right and wrong, nor have the courage to do so.
But social customs are not the only problem. There are also many laws in my country which restrict the freedom of women. For example, Bangladeshi marriage law is based on religious stipulations. According to the law a husband may keep four wives together in his house. No woman wants to share her husband with three other women. Yet the majority of women are bound by this religious law. The kind of consciousness needed to disobey religious laws like these has not developed in Bangladesh in the same way as it has in other countries.
I wrote a documentary novel called Shame in which I described the torture of the minority Hindu community by Muslim people. The Government banned the book. They said that their reason for banning the novel was that its meaning would be misinterpreted by the two religious communities and would incite violence between them. In reality the whole point of the novel is to oppose communalism; I have always supported the cause of non-communalism in my writing.
BENOIT GYSEMBERGH / CAMERA PRESS
Later my negative commentary on the Islamic text – the Qur’an – led the Government to accuse me of attacking religious principles. The police came to take me to jail. Because it would have been unsafe for me to go to jail, I became a fugitive, going into hiding for two months. I never surrendered.
Religious members of society wanted to hang me and, in accordance with Islamic law, they publicly announced they wanted to kill me. All over the country, millions of people went on processions and marches against me. They held strikes on account of me, and a price was put on my head. I was disobedient to both the law of Islam and that of the Government. I managed to leave the country with the help of other rational people. And I have carried on expressing my beliefs and my ideology in response to the prohibitive rules and superstitions of my society. This is because the consciousness, moral judgement and understanding which I have maintained do not allow me to bow down in front of any injustice or inequality.
The powerful men of society and state have also branded me a traitor because I believe that East Bengal which belongs to Bangladesh, and West Bengal which is part of India, should be one. We share the same language and culture. Why should East and West Bengal be separated on purely religious grounds? In my view, Bangladesh should be for Bengali people whether they be Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or Christian. But in saying this I am accused of undermining the sovereignty of my country.
Clearly the ethics of this society and state are different from my own understanding of ethics. In democratic societies the whole political structure is based upon the principle that people are free to hold differing political opinions. But when a state opposes freedom of expression, then the issue of disobedience arises. Am I supposed to follow their will like a senseless thing, a cow or a sheep, or should I be disobedient? To be disobedient one needs a strong sense of morality and immense courage. Not everybody has this. The machinations of government policy turn the majority of people into vegetables.
But I believe that when a population’s conscience and sense of morality can no longer tolerate cruelty and oppression then they automatically come together and will be able to change the laws of government and society. In world history people have always stood up against bloodshed and violence and have made the world habitable. The ideology of Mahatma Gandhi aroused the consciousness of the Indian people to oppose the British and force out the Raj. The doctrines of Martin Luther King inspired hundreds of thousands of people to join the movement against racial discrimination by the white people of America. Nelson Mandela’s own personal code of ethics placed him in conflict with the laws of his country.
Anyone who, in the face of injustice, stands up for their own beliefs, runs the risk of punishment. Some may be killed, some exiled, but at least they are true to themselves.
History has shown us how many people living under the Nazis abandoned their own individual moralities and killed millions in concentration camps. Their excuse was that they were carrying out government orders. Police all over today’s world who are ordered to shoot people marching against their government will offer the same excuse: they abandon their own individual sense of right and wrong and carry out orders because they think it is their duty to do so. Those few police officers who disobey these orders have to face the loss of their jobs, imprisonment and persecution for the rest of their lives. Not everybody is able to take this risk. In every age there have been some who have knuckled under to tyrannical rule and others who have been driven to fight it.
Different societies have different morals. Each society’s moral standards are relative and depend on its financial situation, political structure, religion, education and culture. Whoever takes their ethical education solely from religion will also defend any inhuman practices in that religion as right and good. As individuals we should rather use our own codes of ethics as the measuring rod. In my opinion reason, intelligence, conscience and heart are the qualities necessary to acquire moral understanding. It’s important to follow the laws of your country up to a point. But when religion or the State attacks an individual’s own moral identity, then it is constructive to be disobedient.
It seems to me that in many parts of the world it is now easier to protest than it was in the past. The structure of society has never been fixed – it is always changing. If people do not analyze the structure of their society then it becomes like a stagnant pond. Because there is both a current and an impulse for change, humans and their societies are always moving forward. Economic, political, social and moral sense are increasing, as are our human perspectives. And morally inspired disobedience has an important role to play in that progress.
Taslima Nasrin is living in hiding in Sweden.
Help us keep this site free for all
New Internationalist is a lifeline for activists, campaigners and readers who value independent journalism. Please support us with a small recurring donation so we can keep it free to read online.