Revenge of the Battered Muslim Woman Stereotype

The back of her novel describes Taslima Nasrin’s Revenge:

In contemporary Bangladesh, Jhumur marries for love and imagines life with her husband, Haroon, will continue much as it did when they were dating.  But once she crosses the threshold of Haroon’s family home, Jhumur finds she is expected to be the traditional Muslim wife: head covered, eyes averted, and unable to leave the house without an escort.  When she becomes pregnant, Jhumur is shocked to discover that Haroon doesn’t believe the baby is his.  Overwhelmed by his mistrust, Jhumur plots her revenge in the arms of a handsome neighbor.  A stunning tale of love, lust, and blood ties.

The front cover of Revenge.

Taslima Nasrin’s novel Revenge (published in August 2010 by the Feminist Press, and translated by Honor Moore) tells the story of a Bangladeshi woman’s evolving relationship with an abusive husband.  The book was listed on the Los Angeles Times’ 2010 summer reading list. On the back of the book, Nasrin is described as “known for her powerful writing on women’s oppression and unflinching criticism of Islam, despite forced exile and multiple fatwa calling for her death.”

In the book, Jhumur is an educated woman who falls for her businessman husband, Haroon, while she is a university student.  Once married, however, her husband’s personality takes a turn for the worst as he refuses to believe that he is the father of his child: “How can you have conceived in just six weeks?” becomes his perpetual mantra for the insidious belief in his wife’s imaginary affair.

Nasrin’s portrayal here of a Muslim woman, Jhumur, does combat several misassumptions.  Jhumur has an abortion at her husband’s insistence. Jhumur has a hot affair with her artist neighbor as an act of “revenge” against her husband. Jhumur gives birth to a son as a result of the affair.  But does Jhumur have any agency to act of her own accord, without being influenced by men?

Jhumur describes herself as not being particularly religious prior to her marriage (she is unaware of how to pray, for example). After her marriage, though, her mother-in-law (of course!) encourages her to begin to pray regularly for her family’s well-being.  Despite these few and far-between interludes on religion, I read nothing in the novel’s first-person narrative where Jhumur unequivocally claims that her husband’s religious beliefs contribute towards his own insecurities and how he treats her.

At Words Without Borders, an “online magazine for international literature,” Shaun Randol also finds the sudden change in Jhumur’s character jarring in his review of the book:

Nothing in the text leading up to this personality change lends to the idea that Jhumur is naïve, that she is easily fooled by fronts put on by others for her benefit. Further, there is no indication that either Haroon or his family actually contrived to trap her into a stifling marriage. A savvy, college- educated woman with modern sensibilities, it is unlikely she would fall for such a ruse. Haroon’s abrupt turnaround in behavior toward Jhumur coupled with Jhumur’s susceptibility toward her newfound circumstances is a thinly sketched plot vehicle.

Jhumur’s unfortunate, abusive relationship is a tale that is universal in nature and occurs regardless of a couple’s religious beliefs.  (Are there any religions that would condone such abuse and manipulation of one’s spouse?)  This fundamental truth unfortunately went unheeded by Nasrin’s publisher, The Feminist Press, which chose to tout Jhumur’s role as “the traditional Muslim wife,” in its publicizing of the book.

Why not publicize Jhumur as a traditional Bangladeshi wife?  For it can hardly be said that all Muslim women have such horrendous, paternalistic relationships.  By marketing the book the way it has, The Feminist Press contributes to the negative stereotypes of abusive Muslim relationships that the media is overly fond of promoting.  Muslim women become “the other” that Western readers should feel sympathetic for and Islam is the reason that these women must suffer.

Feminists everywhere: please remember that the damaging effects of patriarchy are not exclusive to Muslim women.  Women all over the world (yes, even in the West) are oppressed by patriarchal societies that use a variety of interpretations—sometimes religious and oftentimes not—to back up their ridiculous claims.

In the end, Nasrin’s Revenge is merely a titillating story.  Nasrin places Jhumur’s sexuality at the forefront of the novel to make up for the lack of her character’s implausible development.  A discussion of “Islam’s oppression of women” is nonexistent here—a few errant statements spread throughout the novel make for an unconvincing argument.  I can’t help but wonder why the Los Angeles Times saw to include it on their summer reading list…

  • Dina

    “Further, there is no indication that either Haroon or his family actually contrived to trap her into a stifling marriage. A savvy, college- educated woman with modern sensibilities, it is unlikely she would fall for such a ruse. Haroon’s abrupt turnaround in behavior toward Jhumur coupled with Jhumur’s susceptibility toward her newfound circumstances is a thinly sketched plot vehicle.”

    Come on – I can see why a Western media source may find such a “sudden and unannounced change” in the spouse’s behavior (and in his family’s) somewhat unbelievable or unrealistic. Who does NOT know of exactly such *typical* stories? I know several, Asian and Arab and African. And I personally believe while these are overwhelminly traditional – you are right with that – they overwhelmingly come from traditions in Muslim countries, at least from my experience. And this is easy to prove if you take into account that in Islamic teachings the husband will be held responsible for his wife’s actions on Judgment Day, not the other way around. This is the most direct root of such traditions one can imagine. Of course this does not mean every college educated woman will fall for such a man, or not get out of the situation. It is a collective phenomenon though outside of ultra-liberal Muslim circles, at least from my experience.

    • Fatemeh

      @ Dina: Not to get into a religious debate, but the Qur’an stresses personal accountability for one’s actions. The statement “And this is easy to prove if you take into account that in Islamic teachings the husband will be held responsible for his wife’s actions on Judgment Day, not the other way around.” doesn’t hold any water.

  • http://www.fugstar.blogspot.com fugstar

    reason?
    the authors history, clearly. which your review gracefully avoids geetting bogged down in.

  • Hodan

    I agree the ‘Feminist press’ went with the easy and most titillating controversy: the Muslim women as being the victim of Muslim men. After all, where would many of these women be if they did not feel superior towards their poor fellow sisterhood and how they can liberate us from hijab and put us in a bikini (the superficial and condescendingly contrived female sexual liberation).

    Having said that, I also disagree with many of your analysis Azra. You said: Why not publicize Jhumur as a traditional Bangladeshi wife?

    We can all debate what Islam states in various sources and different Islamic school of thought, about marriage, male-female relationships. However, we also need to acknowledge the reality that Muslim societies, whether its South Asian, Arab, African, European, etc, etc…..are toxic to the interest and safety of Muslim women. We can all scream until we are blue in the fact how Islam does not condone this or that, but action speaks louder than any evidence our faith have blessed us with. This book is examining (despite the author’s colorful and somewhat bias views about Islam) a Muslim woman married to a Muslim man, in a Muslim family, apart of a Muslim society. So, why do you think it will only focus on the ethnic or country, when the whole culture has been somewhat convoluted in the name of Islam with horrendous treatment of women (famously Bangladesh men spraying acid on the faces of women/girls who refuse to date or marry them, then getting away with legally).

    lastly, you said: But does Jhumur have any agency to act of her own accord, without being influenced by men?”

    why do you assume all she does is because its influenced by men? Even so, its human nature to react or responds to the condition he/she find themselves. I have a problem with blaming women, victims of domestic violence in particular. For one, your questions screams ‘male identified’ kinda of an argument I read and hear often expressed by women towards other women in a patriarchal society.

    Jhumur fell in love and married her husband. Experienced domestic abuse and dealt with it as best as she could. Had an affair with a man (whether it was based on revenge or not). At the end of the day, the story should tell us that as human beings with the full capacity and God giving free will can responds to tragedy or painful conditions in various ways, whether its halaal or not. I think its best to examine this book with the recognition that Muslim communities are horrendous contrary to the family values many profess and claim they support. Its not always about blaming Islam, its about exposing the dirty secrets and not so secrets of Muslim society. I learned through the yrs, instead of getting defensive, its best for us to look @ what is wrong in our communities and change it as best we could. As the beloved Prophet of Allah stated (PBUH): Whomever so unjust/wrong act, try to change it with your hand, if you cannot, try to change it with your tongue, if you can’t, pray for a change in your heart and that is the weakest act of all”….roughly translated from Arabic and Allah knows best.

  • http://www.sisterpower.net Dana

    I have not read the novel and I will not. For me, the LA chose this because it serves others agendas, and it is the same reason why this lady receives this attention. Let her write another novel where the academic research is highly respected and let us see if she would get the same attention? And please let the subject not be women or religion!

    I feel sorry for the readers whose intelligence and academic level is not high enough to permit them differentiate and analyse the personality and mental status of the writer.

    And who is directing the Feminist Press?!!

  • http://culturalfascinations.blogspot.com/ SakuraPassion

    These “poor oppressed Muslim women” stories seem just a way to sell books. People like reading these types of stories. Also, if her character change was sudden, there needs to be a reason as to why it happened so abruptly. Not only does that reinforce stereotypes that sounds like bad story telling too.

  • henna

    I have not read this book so can’t comment fully. But what I feel from your ananlysis and then comments is that we do not want to accept the fact that such things happen.

    To wishwash this story on basis that other women from societies are also prone to this doesn’t make us stop and ponder what is happening in Muslim societies.

    @ Dana you say Tnasrin should write something academic, I dont think she will ever do that. Reason is that she is writing every book where there is some reality that she has seen. starting from Lajja , then that book on writers where she wrote about their personal lives.
    Her books are more about what she sees in society.

    Also since she is allergic to Islam because of what she sees in society happens on name of Islam itself, she will ofcourse always write about religion and women.

    I personally dont think she is great writer but then if we read her books without bias you will find similar things in real life.

    Now whether her book really strikes a cord with me that is something different.

  • Azra

    Thanks for your comments everyone! Working backwards on the comments:

    @henna-I do believe that Muslim women face a tremendous amount of adversity; I take issue with how Nasrin presents her character’s challenges here. There is no nuanced discussion of how “Muslim societies” treat women; there is relatively little exploration of the factors that might contribute to how her character is viewed by society. Compare Revenge , say, to Yasmeen Maxamuud’s Nomad Diaries: here we have another group of Muslim women who face a barrage of challenges. Maxamuud allows for religion, culture, and tradition to remain in the background and for the reader to come to their own conclusion about how society treats its women.

    @SakuraPassion-It’s such a sad state when readers would rather read stories about “oppressed Muslim women” than cool Muslim women who bravely set out on their own path.

    @Dana-I do not know very much about the writer’s personal history and chose instead to focus here on the presentation of her character in the book. I would have included more about the author in my review, but I was unable to find interviews with her where she talks about her background/writing.

    @Hodan: You say: “the reality that Muslim societies, whether its South Asian, Arab, African, European, etc, etc…..are toxic to the interest and safety of Muslim women.” Is it really “Muslim societies” that are toxic or something else…Why not consider the reality that societies in general (regardless of religious beliefs) are toxic to the safety of all women (regardless of religious beliefs here also)? Let’s face it–being a woman is hard, regardless of religion or cultural background.

    When I ask “But does Jhumur have any agency to act of her own accord, without being influenced by men?” I am by no means “blaming the victim.” The question here is: Why does Jhumur assert her sexuality as a means for revenge? Women, here, are valued merely for their sexuality. In Jhumur’s case, both with her husband and lover. Her husband only appreciates her when she gives birth to a son. Her lover only for sex. Cliched? Yes. But even worse: the only function women have is as sexual beings for men, be it for progeny or pleasure (both also patriarchal).

    I have no qualms about exploring how societies mistreat its women–but then let’s have a discussion about all of the factors that affect why this happens instead of easily only claiming that this only occurs in “Islamic Societies.”

    @Fatemeh-Ditto

    @fugstar-see my response to Dana.

    @Dina-I will echo Fatemeh’s comments here.


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