A South African author who was violently attacked for expressing admiration for Salman Rushdie has been admitted to a mental health institution, allegedly under intense pressure from the local Islamic community.
Zainub Priya Dala claims she has been “harangued to withdraw, dissect, explain and renounce my admiration of [Rushdie’s] works”, but is determined to resist. “I could just as easily burn my Oscar Wilde collection because some homophobes came calling,” she says.
Booker prize winner Rushdie has intervened, calling for South African authorities to protect Dala and her right to express literary opinions to be defended. The writers’ association PEN International has also condemned her treatment.
Dala is a psychologist and a physiotherapist who recently published her first novel, What About Meera. During a literary festival last month in Durban, she said she admired the writing of Arundhati Roy and Rushdie, whose book The Satanic Verses resulted in the issuing of a fatwa and death warrant in 1989. Some audience members walked out.
A day later, three men forced her car off the road, put a knife to her throat and hit her face with a brick, breaking her cheekbone. They called her “Rushdie’s bitch” and, had a minibus taxi not appeared at that moment, she says, she is certain she “would’ve been stabbed”.
According to PEN, Dala is married into a family whose elders are important figures in Durban’s Muslim religious and business community. She has been told to recant, repent and say prayers, often in late-night phone calls. Her husband agrees that she should accept what the religious leaders say “and be done with it”, the charity added.
Dala initially consented to be admitted to Life St Joseph’s mental healthcare facility in Durban because of post-traumatic stress but, in a statement released via PEN, explained: “My husband consulted with a holy older person who felt it’s best I be put into St Joseph’s till I can think right and accept Islam. But I am vehemently refusing. Which lands me here in a mental hospital for who knows how long. Come right means … become a good Muslim woman, stay covered and silent. This is not right.”
She continued: “I’ve been … drugged till I can barely walk … and basically broken down into a submission where I will follow the straight path (if there is one). I feel that the far-reaching damage to my kids will be severe as they attend schools that are 90% Muslim. And I refuse to educate them with fire and brimstone stories about how they may go to heaven but their beloved grandmother will burn in hellfire.
“That’s what they are teaching the kids now anyway. I have also been harangued to withdraw, dissect, explain and renounce my admiration of [Rushdie’s] works. I could just as easily burn my Oscar Wilde collection because some homophobes came calling. I can’t turn back now and pretend I never admired his writing. I would look like a fool.”
Dala has expressed a desire to return home to her husband and two children but said her doctor has gone on leave. “The reality is that I’m going to have to stay here until my psychiatrist comes back, and that is like torture.”
Alarmed by the reports from South Africa, British author Rushdie has joined PEN’s efforts to support Dala. In an email to the Guardian on Sunday, he said: “What remains plain is that Z P Dala has been placed under unbearable psychological pressure for simply saying she liked my ‘literary style’.
“I hope she can be released soon, that the South African authorities can provide her with proper protection to avoid a repetition of the horrific physical attack of some weeks ago, and that she can be helped to resume her life wherever and however she wishes.”
He added: “It’s also important that her right to express literary opinions be defended. She has been subjected to appalling pressure from her own community for an entirely innocent passing remark made at a literary event.”
Jo Glanville, director of English PEN, said: “The repercussions of her public statement of support for Salman Rushdie should appal anyone who cares about freedom of expression in South Africa. That this assault has been followed by pressure from Dala’s own community, leading to her detention in a mental institution, is not treatment that any of us would expect to see in an open society.”
The Islamic Council of South Africa was unavailable for comment.
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