Taslima Nasreen

Women’s rights need to be viewed from a universal humanistic perspective. It doesn’t vary between the East and the West, and certainly isn’t a slave to religious belief

india Updated: Mar 09, 2012 18:09 IST

Let alone ‘Western feminism’, I had no idea about ‘Eastern feminism’. Without any familiarity with these concepts, I have since childhood questioned a lot of diktat, advice and proscriptions from the family and from society at large. When I, unlike my brothers, wasn’t allowed to play outside; when I was called ‘impure’ during my periods; or when I was told I had grown up and must cover myself completely in a black burqa if I wanted to step out, I questioned, I didn’t give in readily.

When strange boys would hurl abuses at me, snatch my scarf or pinch my breasts as I walked by, I protested. I couldn’t stomach it when I saw husbands beating their wives, young mothers weeping in anxiety and fear having given birth to a baby girl. Upon observing the shame on the faces of raped women, I felt their pain acutely; I broke down upon hearing about women being trafficked from city to city, from one country to another in order to be forced into prostitution. No logic, no intellect could make me accept the torture of women by the men, the society, the state. But no one witnessed my pain, my tears, the nonacquiescence, the non-acceptance, the speechlessness, the inability to tolerate, the screams, the logic and reason – that is, until I started writing.

The society that I grew up in engendered questions in the minds of many. They were forced to accept the answers given by the leaders of the patriarchy. I didn’t give in to that coercion. No one taught me to be disobedient. I didn’t learn defiance from a book. It is not necessary to read thick and heavy books to be aware; one just needs eyes to observe. No one helps build courage either. In order to demand rights for women, one doesn’t need to internalise Betty Friedan or Robin Morgan; one’s own awareness is often good enough.

If I’m hungry, I shall eat; if I am lashed, I shall wrest away the lash; if I am oppressed, I shall stand up – these sentiments are universal. Feminism is not a property of the West. It is the arduous struggle by abused, oppressed, tortured, disrespected, ignored women coming together, putting their lives at stake, for the sake of their rights.

I learnt that women of the West also had no less than their share of tribulations. Abused and bloodied, they had their backs to the wall. They have screamed; centuries upon centuries they have been victims of patriarchy, religion, misogynistic traditions and so forth, just like their Eastern counterparts. Religious fanatics have burnt them alive, misogynistic traditions have imposed metallic cages on their bodies in the name of chastity, they have been turned into sex slaves. East or West, North or South, women still suffer in the same way for the ‘crime’ of being women.

Human rights are universal. Those, who talk about separate human rights for the East and seek to distance themselves from the universal human rights, assuming that this stance represents a victory over the prolonged oppression by the West, actually end up harming the East more than the West.

A recurrent question that is often raised claims that I have hurt religious sensitivities. Feminism has long opposed religion; whoever has even the slightest knowledge of women’s rights knows this. Religion is patriarchal through and through. I shall follow a religion and I shall acknowledge women’s rights – this stance is akin to saying I shall drink poison along with honey. Whenever religion-motivated abuse of women has been challenged in order to wrest women’s rights, immediately the slogan “Religious sensitivities must not be hurt” has been raised by those that are anti-democracy, anti-free speech, and opposed to women’s independence. I, however, don’t refer to any kind of barbarism as culture.

Alleging I have hurt Muslim religious sensitivities, a few ignorant and insular conservatives pass the verdict that my statements are statements from the West, statements of observing the East with Western eyes. This meaningless, illogical claim by the Islamic fundamentalists is often supported by so-called ‘secular’ folk from India in the name of tolerance.

I have criticised Christianity, Judaism and other misogynistic religions. But usually no one complains about it thereafter. No one takes out a fatwa to murder me if I hurt the religious sentiments of non-Muslims. But there is no dearth of people who, without any problem, accept the intolerance, and respect the ‘religious sensitivities’ of those who do take out a fatwa; such people label me ‘intolerant’ without a hint of doubt. Possibly, they see me as a Muslim, and view my actions of hurting Muslim religious sentiments as hubris.

But the truth is, if one believes in women’s rights, one has to first cast away one’s religious identity. I have been free of that since early adolescence. When I was but a child, I was unjustly shackled with a religious identity in the same way as other children are. We don’t mark a child with its parents’ political ideologies; we don’t refer to the infant or toddler of a communist parent as a ‘communist’. But we don’t feel uncomfortable in labelling a twoyear old child as Hindu, Muslim or Christian. When the child grows up, it may choose its parents’ religion, or some other religion, or none at all. That’s how it should be. I have successfully implemented this principle in my life. I have chosen humanism as my faith. I should not be mistaken for a ‘Muslim reformer’. Neither am I a reformer, nor do I belong to any religious community. My community is that of religion-free humanists.

First Published: Mar 09, 2012 18:00 IST