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One woman lifts the veil on her Islamic life

Meyebela: My Bengali Girlhood, A Memoir of Growing Up Female in a Muslim World, Taslima Nasrin, Translated from the Bengali by Gopa Majumdar, Steerforth Press: 308 pp., $26

November 17, 2002|Gina B. Nahai | Gina B. Nahai is the author of "Cry of the Peacock," "Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith" and "Sunday's Silence."

Less than a decade ago, Muslim clerics in Bangladesh issued a series of fatwas against a 31-year-old woman who had written a novel they found offensive. The woman, Taslima Nasrin, was a physician from a small town in the northern part of the country. Having worked as an anesthesiologist in the gynecological department of a hospital, she had treated scores of battered women and raped girls who had no legal or social recourse against their attackers. Prompted by these experiences, Nasrin had written a series of newspaper columns addressing the question of women's rights under Islam. In 1993, she had spoken out against the stoning death of a woman whose second marriage had been deemed a violation of Islamic law: The woman was buried waist-deep in a pit and killed with more than 100 stones. Later that year, Nasrin's "Shame" was published -- a novel about the plight of Hindu citizens of Bangladesh under Muslim rule. This, the clerics declared, was the last straw. Nasrin's writings were officially deemed apostasy -- an offense punishable in Islam by death -- and a fatwa was issued with a price on her head.

Through the summer of 1994, 300,000 Bengali Muslims participated in violent nationwide strikes against Nasrin. Prompted by the mullahs, they demanded her arrest and public hanging. The government responded by bringing criminal charges against Nasrin. She was forced into hiding and later exile, where she lingers still, but she was not silenced. Over the last eight years, she has continued to write novels, essays and poetry. And she has published the first volume of her memoirs.

"Meyebela" is the story of a young girl born into a middle-class Muslim family in what in 1962 was still East Pakistan. Nasrin's father is a former peasant who received a secular education and who now practices as a physician in government employ. He personifies the often torturous plight of many citizens of traditional societies engaged in the effort of secular modernization: He is enlightened enough to believe in the rule of Reason above Faith, the merits of secular laws over religious ones and the importance of education for both men and women. But he cannot shake the vestiges of a thousand years of inherited thought, the legacy of lies, cruelty and violence that is often visited upon the weak -- women, children and ethnic and religious minorities -- in such societies.

So, he marries his wife when she is only 12, but he does allow her to stay in school until her own father steps in to put an end to such foolishness. He bemoans his wife's ignorance, but he keeps her restricted to the house much of the time and makes every decision, large and small, regarding the family. He tells his children that an education is the only possible route to happiness, but he beats them -- and his wife -- violently when they fail his expectations, straps his sons to a tree when they disobey him, and he makes his daughters rub mustard oil in their eyes so as not to fall asleep over their books at night. He practices medicine -- a science devoted to improving human life -- but he loots the homes of his Hindu neighbors after they are driven away in the war of independence in 1971.

Nasrin grows up watching her mother, aunts and female neighbors be beaten and humiliated by their men. She lives in a permanent state of terror at her father's ever-increasing violence. She is so alienated by him that she forgets how to speak in his presence. She understands quickly that her mother has no refuge or escape: The laws of the country, based on Islamic principles, recognize no rights for women, and their upbringing -- little or no education, no job training and very limited contact with the world outside the house -- has virtually ensured that they will starve to death without help from a man.

Almost by instinct, therefore, Nasrin keeps to herself the fact that she has been molested by a male cousin and an uncle. She stands by quietly as her mother pleads for help under her husband's blows, as her brother is almost killed by their father, as her mother, in turn, beats and starves the servant girls in the house. She is too weak to fight the seemingly invincible, but she does know enough to distinguish between what is and what should be.

When Nasrin is in elementary school, her mother's helplessness leads to a depression that leaves her nearly mad. She emerges from the depression in the early 1970s, only to become a regular at the home of a fundamentalist cleric who promises eternal salvation at the expense of earthly suffering.

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