Viewpoint - Taslima Nasrin, Winner of the 2004 UNESCO-Madanjeet Singh Prize
in SHS Newsletter 07
Bangladeshi writer and journalist, Taslima Nasrin, has received the 2004 UNESCO-Madanjeet Singh Prize for the promotion of tolerance and non-violence. The acceptance speech Taslima Nasrin gave at the ceremony held at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris on 16 November 2004, is reproduced here.
I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude for having been awarded the UNESCO-Madanjeet Singh Prize for 2004.
Bangladesh, where I was born, is a nation of more than 30 million, one of the most populous countries in the world. More than 1500 people are crowded into a square kilometre of space. It is a country where 70 per cent of the people live below the poverty line, where more than half of the population cannot read and write, a country where there is insufficient health care, and where infant mortality is high. Nearly 40 million women have no access to education nor do they have the possibility of becoming independent.
Because of the country’s strong patriarchal tradition women suffer unbearable inequalities and injustices. They suffer from malnutrition and from anaemia as well as from the physical and psychological problems that are not treated. Women normally remain untreated because they are not taken to hospitals until they reach terminal stages. Women are not supposed to become sick, because they must remain busy with household chores, bear and rear children, take care of the family, and make sure that the male members of the family are happy. A woman’s destiny is to be ruled by the father in childhood, by the husband when she is young, and by her son when she is old.
Because women are considered weak, their rights, their freedoms, their desires, their wishes, all are controlled by men. Women are considered inferior beings, servants and sexual objects. For a married couple, the most unwanted thing is a female baby. If a female baby is born, it is not uncommon that either the wife gets a divorce for her crime of having given birth to a female or the wife must spend her life in disgrace. Women are considered intellectually, morally, physically and psychologically inferior by religion, tradition, culture and customs.
As a result, far too many women suffer from trafficking, from slavery, from all kinds of discrimination. Men throw acid on women’s bodies, burn their faces, smash their noses, melt their eyes, and walk away as happy men. Women are beaten, are flogged, are stoned to death. Women are raped, are accused of allowing the rape, and the rapists are set free. Violence against women is not considered a crime in my country.
For example, let me tell you about Yasmin, a 15-year-old girl. Employed as a maid, she was raped by her master, she fled from the master’s home, and she was observed by the police as she walked towards her parents’ house. The police told her it was not safe for a girl to be walking on the road at night, they offered her a ride home in their van, and what happened? Six policemen raped her, killed her, then threw her body into the bushes. When news of her murder broke out, villagers demonstrated against the police. The police shot at the protesters, killing seven. The Government then issued a statement the following day that Yasmin was a girl of bad character, she was a prostitute, and the police had every right to treat her as they did. Such is not a rare case in Bangladesh. I know that it happens in other countries, also.
Nobody told me to protest, but from an early age I developed strong feelings about the importance of fighting against oppression. Nobody asked me to shed a tear, but I did. By writing books, I wanted to do something constructive. I wrote about the need for women to understand why they are oppressed and why they should fight against their oppression. For centuries, women have been taught that they are slaves of men, that they are not supposed to protest against the patriarchal system, that they must remain silent against their abusers. As a result, it has been difficult for women to accept the idea that they are, in fact, human beings and have the right to live as independent and equal human beings. Through my writing, I tried to encourage women to fight for their rights and freedom. My voice gave the chance to women to think differently. That did not make the religious fundamentalists happy. Quite the contrary! As a result, the fundamentalists refused to tolerate any of my views. They objected to a woman’s breaking the chains and becoming free. They could not tolerate my saying that the religious scriptures are out of time and out of place. They were upset at my saying that religious law, which discriminates against women, needs to be replaced by secular law and a uniform civil code. Hundreds of thousands of the extremists appeared on the streets and demanded my execution by hanging. A fatwa was issued against me, setting a price on my head. The Government, instead of taking action against the fundamentalists, took action against me. I was charged with having hurt the religious feelings of the people. An arrest warrant was issued. But despite all the pressure, I continued writing. In my poetry, prose, essays, and novels, I have defended the people who are oppressed. I have cried loudly for equality and justice, justice for all people whatever their religion and gender. I have spoken loudly for the separation of religion and State, for secular law, for secular education.
During my struggle for a secular and ethical humanism, I have tried to defend the poor and also the ethnic and religious minority communities that were being oppressed. It was impossible for me to accept the idea that people living miserable lives did so because they had a different faith, or spoke a different language, or had a different culture. I believe that the diversity of our world’s many religions, languages, cultures and ethnicities is not a pretext for conflict, but is a treasure that enriches us all, words identical to those of UNESCO’s affirmations. Diversity is a treasure to be appreciated. There is no superior, no inferior culture in this world, only various cultural patterns that make up our beautiful multicoloured mosaic.
But, humans should not allow oppression in the name of religion. Humans should not allow torture such as female genital mutilation in the name of custom or traditions. Humans should not allow barbarism, humiliation, inequality, or injustice in the name of culture. Culture should not be and must not be used against humanity.
When I look around, I see the same picture everywhere: women are oppressed. Whether they are poor or rich, beautiful or ugly, have blue, black or brown eyes, have white, black or brown skin, are unmarried or married, illiterate or literate, believer or non-believer, women are oppressed. Everywhere women are oppressed, and the source of the problem is male-devised patriarchy, religion, tradition, culture and customs. Because of blind faith, humans are suffering from bloodshed, hatred, ignorance, illiteracy, injustices and poverty. But if we on Earth sincerely wanted to replace injustice with justice, we could eliminate all the problems of humanity which are caused by a blind faith in religion. Both the Judaeo-Christian Bible and the Qur’an clearly accept and condone slavery. Jesus explicitly tells slaves to accept their roles and obey their masters. No one in this world today would defend chattel slavery in any public forum or allow it under any legal code. Neither fundamentalist Christians nor Orthodox Jews talk about animal sacrifice or slavery. In those countries in which sharia or Islamic law exists, where stoning for adultery and amputation for stealing are legalized, no legitimization of slavery is ever mentioned. Polygamy and use of concubines are clearly accepted in the Old Testament, but nowhere in the Judaeo-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 is a hoax. Such practices could and should be de-legitimized just as chattel slavery has been de-legitimized.
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 two religions, namely Christianity and Islam, or Judaism and Islam. After all, there are fundamentalists in every religious community. I don’t agree with those people who think that the crusades of the Middle Ages are going to be repeated soon. Nor do I think that this is a conflict 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. It is a conflict between the future and the past, between innovation and tradition, between those who value freedom and those who do not.
I have been writing against all kinds of physical and sexual violence, religious terrorism, and patriarchal discrimination against women. I have a dream: I dream of a beautiful world, where no woman will be oppressed, will not be a victim of trafficking, acid throwing, rape, and sexual assault. I dream of a tolerant world where human beings will respect each other, a respect that would not give way to war, bloodshed, or violence. I have been writing to make my dream come true, an ethical world in which humanity will flourish with humans full of love, not with humans full of hatred.
My pen is my weapon in such a fight for a secular humanism, but the extremists have come to kill me with their swords. They have burned my books, sued my publishers for publishing my books, attacked the bookshops where my books are kept. My freedom of expression has constantly been violated by the authority. I have written 28 books, 5 of which are banned by the Government – and cases have been filed against me to ban my other books. One Bangladesh court sentenced me to one year in prison for what I have written. In recent years, the Government banned all four books of my memoirs.
In my memoir, what I have written is not just my life story. It is the same story that thousands of women know about, how women live in patriarchal society that has hundreds of traditions that allow them to suffer. I have looked back into my childhood days and described the life of being a female child. I have told how I was brought up and have explained that I had privileges that many others did not have. I was able to study and become a medical doctor, something that thousands of girls cannot even dream about. I wanted to show where and how I grew up and what made me think differently, what made me do things differently. It is important to give other women some inspiration to revolt against the oppressive system that I grew up under and which still continues for them. I told the truth. I expressed everything that happened in my life. 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 untold stories, too. We, the victims, should shout loudly. We need to be heard. We must protest loudly and 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 oppressive 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 children as well as our children’s children.
My story is not a unique one. My experiences, unfortunately, have been shared by millions of fellow sufferers. In my books, 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 do not cry alone any more, and because of that I have been suffering. I was thrown out of my own country. Instead of being able to live in the area of the world in which I was born and brought up, I was given that alternative of living in the West where I am forced to feel like an outsider.
I am, in other words, a stranger in my own country and a stranger here in the West where I am living now. Where can I go? Nowhere. Exile, for me, is a bus stop, where I am waiting for a bus to go home. I have been living in exile for more than 10 years. Still, I do not feel that any home is my home, any country my country. Mine is a hopeless, helpless feeling. Sometimes I ask myself, is this true, do I really have no home? Actually, it’s not true. I do have a home. My home is love, the love I receive from women all over the world. That is my home, the love I receive from rationalists, free thinkers, secularists, and humanists is my home. The love I receive from you is my home.
I regret nothing that I have done or that I have ever written. Come what may, I will continue my fight against all the extremist, fundamentalist, intolerant forces without any compromise until my death. Today is the 16th of November, International Day for Tolerance.
Today, I know, many are being killed as I speak. Today, I know, many women are being beaten, raped and murdered, as I speak. Today, I know, many children are being abused, because of hatred and intolerance. The challenge is to educate the world’s peoples about tolerance and non-violence. The challenge is to make Earth liveable. The challenge is to make every day of the year Tolerance Day. Tolerance is a concept that recognizes everyone’s human right and everyone’s fundamental freedom. People are naturally diverse, and should be, but only through tolerance can that diversity survive in the mixed communities of every region on the globe.
I am delighted, yet humbled, to be awarded the UNESCO-Madanjeet Singh Prize. I am grateful for the sympathy, support, and solidarity that UNESCO has shown to me. This award, this recognition, has made me all the more committed and all the more determined to continue my struggle.
Thank you all.
Taslima Nasrin, who trained as a medical doctor, became known towards the late 1980s for her articles denouncing the oppression of women in some Asian countries. Despite death threats from Islamic fundamentalists, she continues to fight for a new civil code in her country, a code based on gender equality and secular education. Author of over 20 books in Bengali, some of which have been translated into more than 20 different languages, she has received several prizes including the Ananda Puroshkar Indian literary prize, the European Parliament Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought and Swedish pen’s Kurt Tucholsky Prize.
The UNESCO-Madanjeet Singh Prize
The UNESCO-Madanjeet Singh Prize for the Promotion of Tolerance and Non-Violence was created in 1995 thanks to the generosity of Indian writer and diplomat, Madanjeet Singh, who is also a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador. With the aim of developing a spirit of tolerance in the arts, education, culture, science and communication, the Prize is awarded every two years in recognition of exceptional achievements on the part of individuals or institutions that have contributed to the promotion of tolerance. The laureate receives a sculpture by the Japanese artist Toshi and a sum of US $100,000. Previous prizewinners are Rwanda’s Pro-femmes Twese Hamwe, a group of 32 women’s NGOs (1996), the Egyptian Patriarch Shenouda III, Head of the Coptic Orthodox Church (2000), and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar (2002).