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…

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