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The Mullahs' Hit List


She is not the female Salman Rushdie nor, for that matter, is she the feminist Salman Rushdie, whatever that hybrid might look like. But the 32-year-old Bangladeshi doctor turned columnist, poet, novelist and now outlaw may be stuck with that dubious moniker.

Taslima Nasrin has become the latest face on the wall of the international post office, the newest most-wanted writer being targeted by the religious right wing of her own country, a right wing that makes our own pale by comparison. For speaking her mind she now has a price on her head.

If Ms. Nasrin is not Mr. Rushdie, it's because Bangladesh is not Iran, and because this is more than a case of freedom of expression. Six years ago, Mr. Rushdie became an accidental crusader for free speech when the Ayatollah Khomeini condemned him to death for his novel, "The Satanic Verses." Ms. Nasrin is being persecuted for specific beliefs she freely expressed.

This woman -- more Erica Jong than Gloria Steinem -- has written strongly about sexual equality and graphically about sexual freedom. In her columns she has written about women stoned to death for remarrying and flogged for fornication. In a BBC special she was seen provocatively lighting a cigarette and then, with the other hand, reading the Koran.

"Everywhere I look, I see women being mistreated and their oppression justified in the name of religion," she wrote last winter. "Is it not my moral responsibility to protest? Some men would keep women in chains, veiled, illiterate and in the kitchen."

In her columns, the thrice-married woman has said that a Muslim woman should be able to have sex as she chooses and to take as many husbands -- four -- as a Muslim man can take wives. The outraged mullah who called for her execution labeled her an advocate of "freedom of the vagina."

The long-simmering furor over Ms. Nasrin came to a head last month after she was quoted in a newspaper interview calling for an overhaul of the Koran. The controversy exploded into demonstrations and street battles. An intimidated government ordered her arrest under a rarely used law that prohibits writing "intended to outrage the religious feeling," and she went into hiding.

Last week, the foreign ministers of the European Union offered her asylum and called on the Bangladeshi government to protect her. Meanwhile in Bangladesh the Islamic right wing demanded that the government resign because it failed "to protect religion" from this woman.

Even some human-rights advocates on her side talk ruefully of Ms. Nasrin as a one-woman shock troop who has undone the painstaking work of the more cautious change agents. But it's become apparent that she is less a cause of the backlash than its convenient target.

Bangladesh is a secular nation of 120 million of the world's poorest people, 90 percent of whom are Muslim. Khaleda Zia, the widow of an assassinated leader, heads the shaky coalition government in a country bedeviled by cyclones and floods, by overpopulation and illiteracy.

Over the past decade, a remarkable coalition of non-governmental organizations struggled to empower women through programs encouraging literacy, jobs and reproductive-health care. In the last year, these projects have been attacked by the religious right. It's believed that their leaders are also on mullah death lists. Just a few days before Ms. Nasrin was forced into hiding, extremists destroyed a center for reproductive-health care and literacy in northeast Bangladesh.

In this backlash scheme of things, Taslima Nasrin is pointed to as "proof" that teaching women to read and write leads to blasphemy and that sexual equality is nothing but a road to promiscuity.

It's this attack that has somber echoes around the world. In just six weeks, the U.N. Conference on Population and Development will meet in Cairo to set the agenda for a world bursting at the seams with people. One tenet of the conference is that the way to slow population growth is through the advancement of women.

But what is promising to one part of the international community is still threatening to another. One group may talk about women having control. Another group still thinks about controlling women.

So it is in Bangladesh. There a woman boldly, maybe foolhardily, spoke out. Now she is hiding out. A true believer in sexual freedom has become the most recent "infidel" on the fundamentalist international hit list.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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