Translated from the original Bengali Dwikhandito (Split in Two), Split: A Life by Taslima Nasrin was banned by the Leftist government in West Bengal in 2003 on the ground of hurting the sentiments of the Muslim community. The ruling was overturned in 2005 by the High Court, but by then, Nasrin had been pressured to leave Kolkata, a city she considered her second home after Dhaka, which she had left in 1994. She can return to neither city.
Kolkata was not the first time she faced defamation, humiliation and ban—even physical harassment—because of her writings. After Salman Rushdie, Nasrin made Bangladesh join the list of countries in the subcontinent that bowed down to religious fundamentalists at the cost of their artists. She has been in self-exile from her country since she was 32 years old due to a death threat (fatwa) allegedly prompted by her life, feminist writings in newspapers, stand on sexual freedom for women, the novel Lajja (Shame), and events in Bangladesh following the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992. Since then, Nasrin has lived sporadically in India and Europe for 24 years, and has a home in Delhi under a renewable temporary residence permit.
Parts of Split were expunged and invited expensive lawsuits, still unsettled. Even this translation has dropped some sensitive portions and names. The 500-page volume is only the second of the seven memoirs of this author, who started her life as a doctor, a feminist and poet, and covers two decades. As per Nasrin, one cannot be a feminist and religious at the same time, especially among Muslims, because religious texts, in particular their exposition by religious leaders, do not accord women equal respect. In fact, I would extend this to all religious texts in general.
Reading Split, one is awed at the mistreatment Nasrin faced from almost all the men who were important in her life, beginning with her father. This happened to her although she was well-read, a practising physician, and a poet, acclaimed for her brave, fresh voice, secular values, and championing of the poor and minorities. Through her years of growing up in Mymensingh, work and personal life in Dhaka, and the trials and tribulations that followed, she depicts how she tried to live a honest and true life, not as a woman but as a human, advocating for women and not against anyone, which still meant going against religion and society. But the confusion, hurt and anger that she felt, especially the ostracisation and torture by her own family, also led her to often make errors of judgment and choose the wrong men to support and seek protection from.
Despite a phenomenal knowledge of history and society, Nasrin often sounds surprised and bitter by the turn of events, when she should have been aware, cautious, careful and wise. Yet, the anger, mostly at religious old men and how they were perpetuating the dark ages for Bangladeshi women, is also raw and honest, and exposes her extreme vulnerability alongside the power of her convictions. This is the reason it moves the reader even 15 years later (disclosure: I read it in Bengali long ago). Split impresses not just because of the turn of events that she records so faithfully and perhaps too meticulously, but more because her voice and reality are still relevant.
Translated adequately by Maharghya Chakraborty, the book is painstaking to plough through—with Nasrin, it is never how she says it, but what; she never dresses up what she says. But it remains an important record of the fate of those who dare to walk the road of truth, the rebels and the revolutionaries who try to change society and right historical wrongs! Through her writing, Nasrin says, “I tried to reaffirm that a woman’s body and her heart were her own and not someone else’s property to treat as they pleased.”
Most religious texts do not give women the right to their bodies; as a reproduction medium to perpetuate the family, the womb is sacred, and, therefore, sexual liberation is taboo. This is precisely why Nasrin hasn’t had an unalloyed claim to fame and is not revered among many women, while she universally should be. Her bluntness and sexual liberation have earned her enemies in the feminist, as well as Leftist camps. She has also been labelled as an attention-seeker, and her propensity to victimise herself has even lost her a few friends. Yet, these qualities would have sat comfortably on a male writer in a similar situation—Rushdie’s life stories are more celebrity news than salacious gossip and sniggering. “It is time women write their own stories. It is not for men to write about women’s pleasure and pain,” she said once, and rightly so.
Simone de Beauvoir said patriarchy or gender ideologies dictate that to discriminate, it is important to “otherise” women. This, like race or caste, forms the core of conflicts between cultures, and is key to developing a national identity. Gayatri Chakravarti Spivak questioned how the subaltern had been silenced and how gender was one of the subalterns. Nasrin, despite being from the elite, educated class, became one of the subalterns by questioning the way women had been taught to think about themselves, their body and mind, and their role in family and society. Even though we don’t acknowledge it, subalternisation happens everyday to each of us, even the women who try to become CEOs and fail.
Nasrin can never return to Bangladesh where Islamisation is increasing, and bloggers are being killed. Even the current Muslim-friendly government in Bengal must abide by its political friends and constituencies. The fatwa did help the fundamentalists; in 24 years, we haven’t heard of another Bangladeshi female voice like Nasrin’s. Nor, for that matter, in India. It is, therefore, essential that this voice is not tamed.
Author is is a freelance writer