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Writer Risks Threats, Arrest on Her Return to Bangladesh


NEW DELHI — Taslima Nasrin, a celebrated and incendiary Bangladeshi writer, is on the run in her native land.

Nasrin, hounded from her country by Muslim extremists four years ago, returned in September to Dhaka, the capital, where her mother lies dying. Nasrin had hoped that controversy about her had calmed enough to permit her return.

Today, Nasrin is in hiding, shuttling from one Dhaka apartment to another, trying to stay a step ahead of government officials who want to arrest her and fundamentalists who want her dead.

"Why is this happening?" Nasrin asked by cellular telephone from a secret locale. "I want only to be with my mother in her last days."

Like Indian writer Salman Rushdie, who faces death threats from Iranian fundamentalists, Nasrin is in danger because of her criticisms of Islam.

In her 19 books, Nasrin has forcefully criticized communal violence and Islam's treatment of women. And although she enjoys widespread popularity in Bangladesh, she is under siege by fundamentalists who say she speaks sacrilege.

"Taslima Nasrin is an infidel, and it is the duty of Muslims to find her out and turn her over to the police," Abu Taher, a leader of the Bangladesh Islamic Assembly, the nation's largest religious party, told a crowd in Chittagong last week.

Taher offered $2,500--about 10 times the typical annual income--to anyone who can find Nasrin. Other Muslim extremist groups have offered $5,000 for her slaying. And a magistrate has issued a warrant for her arrest, citing an obscure law that makes insulting a religion a criminal act.

Nasrin, a physician turned poet, novelist and journalist, takes as her fictional raw material the push and pull of current events. Her writings evoke sexual images and portray women straining against the tyrannies of tradition--explosive stuff in a country where many women still shroud themselves in head-to-toe burkas and eight out of every 10 women are illiterate.

"Women have been taught for centuries that they are the slaves of men," Nasrin said. "I started writing because I wanted to wake women up."

Nasrin, 36, first ran afoul of fundamentalists in 1993 with the publication of her novel "Shame." The book told the story of the Duttas, a Hindu family in Bangladesh harassed by Muslim extremists. The backdrop for the story is the events of December 1992, when a Hindu mob in India destroyed a mosque in Ayodhya. The riots that engulfed India spilled into Bangladesh, where the country's Hindu minority was targeted.

"Shame" singled out the fundamentalists for the atrocities against Hindus. But Nasrin did not stop there.

"The riots that took place in 1992 in Bangladesh were the responsibility of us all, and we are all to blame," she wrote in the book's preface. " 'Shame' is a document of our collective defeat."

Her real problems began shortly after the novel's release, when an Indian newspaper quoted Nasrin as saying that the "Koran should be revised thoroughly." She denied making the remark, but it was too late. A Muslim cleric issued a fatwa, or religious edict, against her. Arrested and charged with insulting Islam, she was later freed and left Bangladesh. For the next four years, she stayed in Sweden, France, Germany and New York.

Nasrin decided to return in September to be with her mother, Idul Wara. Now she again fears for her life.

Last week, a magistrate denied her bail and ordered her to surrender by Jan. 5. If convicted, she could be imprisoned for two years.

In a way, she resembles her fictional creation, Sudhamoy Dutta, when he finally decided to flee Bangladesh.

"He had realized that that was the way it would have to be," Nasrin wrote in "Shame." "Because the strong mountain that he had built within himself was crumbling day by day."

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