For Freedom of Expression – Taslima Nasreen at UNESCO

  • Date / 12 November 1999

November 12, 1999 – Taslima Nasreen took the floor during Commission V of UNESCO’s General Conference, as a delegate of the NGO “International Humanist and Ethical Union” (I.H.E.U.).

Here is the full text of Ms Nasreen’s declaration:

“I was threatened by the religious fundamentalists in my country Bangladesh. They have decreed a fatwa against me and set a price on my head. Not only that, I am a criminal according to the government of my country too. The government there has banned my book, and issued an arrest warrant against me for committing blasphemy. I was forced to leave my country. Since 6 years I have been living in exile.

I was born in a Muslim family, but I became an atheist. In course of my training in science, I developed the powers of observation, experiment, analysis, and reasoning. Without reasoning, I found, nothing should be accepted as fact. I have been fighting against injustice, unreason, and prejudice. I exposed the crimes of religion, particularly the injustice and oppression against women.

It makes me surprised that some Western states have declared the protection of human rights to be one of their supreme objectives, but then they patronized fundamentalism both overtly and covertly. Democratic governments recognize military dictatorships for short-run political interests. Secular states make friends with autocracies as well as theocracies. They even tolerate the completely inhuman behavior of their own fundamentalists. Such double standards practiced by so-called democratic and secular states at home and abroad give the fundamentalists a sort of legitimacy. Governments then have to succumb to the fundamentalists’ pressure and proscribe books and make arrangements to send its writers and authors to prison.

Some Westerners argue that not all the customs in the third world countries are harmful for women. They find a sort of stability and social peace in the oriental world. It is nonsense. For me, there can be no difference in the concept of human rights between the East and the West. If the veil is bad for Western women, then it is bad for their oriental sisters as well. If patriarchy is to be fought against in the West, it should be equally fought against in the East. The fight, in fact, is more urgent there because most of the women have neither any education nor any economic independence. If modem secular education is good for Western women, why should the Eastern women be deprived of it!

The fundamentalists cannot be countered without a relentless and uncompromising fight. The struggle should be both theoretical and tactical. Democracy and secularism should be applied in practice and not remain a mere play of words.

Fundamentalism is an ideology that diverts people from the path of natural development of consciousness and undermines their personal rights. Fundamentalists do not believe in individualism, liberty of personal choice, or plurality of thought. Moreover, as they are believers in a particular faith, they believe only in propagating their own ideas as autocrats generally do . They do not encourage or entertain free debate, they deny others the right to express their own views freely, and they cannot tolerate anything which they perceive as going against their faith.

I believe in fundamental rights of human beings to express themselves orally or in their writings; in equal rights for women in every sphere of life; and in constructing a society in which everybody gets a fair deal. We all should work for it. Media is helpful for spreading the ideas of human rights. And for media to work, the state has to be secular, the religious laws has to be abolished to create uniform civil code in which women get equalities. Education, of course secular education is important for women to get the knowledge about their rights. Religious education and politics based on religion must be banned to save the mankind. As they are not banned in my country, and the country is not secular, I, as a writer and journalist, once worked in media, was prevented to express my ideas and thoughts. It is impossible to have coexistence of religion and freedom of expression.”

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