September 10, 2013

Sushmita Banerjee, Indian writer who defied the Taliban, killed in Afghanistan


Sushmita Banerjee

Sushmita Banerjee, an Indian writer living in Afghanistan, was killed last week by suspected Taliban militants who took her from her home in Paktika Province, and shot her more than fifteen times.

Banerjee was born in Kolkata, India, but relocated to Afghanistan in 1988 to be with her husband, an Afghan businessman. As life under Taliban rule became increasingly difficult, Banerjee rebelled against laws controlling women’s access to medical care by opening a secret health clinic. After the Taliban discovered her clinic and had her severely beaten, Banerjee made the decision to escape. It took three attempts, and by the time she arrived in New Dehli a fatwa had been issued against her. She lived in India for the next eighteen years, writing three books about her experiences including A Kabuliwala’s Bengali Wife, which was adapted to film under the title, “Escape from the Taliban.”

Banerjee returned to Afghanistan this year with the intention of documenting life after the Taliban.

Banerjee’s death is the latest in a series of violent acts against outspoken women by the Taliban, echoing the attempted murder of Malala Yousufzai in October 2012. Although the Karzai administration initially rolled back many of the restrictions on women’s activities from the Taliban era, the code of conduct issued by the Ulema Council and endorsed by President Hamid Karzai in March 2012 included many new limitations on male-female interaction and mandated full hijab, among other restrictions. Women’s rights activists have decried this endorsement as a retrogressive move by the government.

Banerjee may also have been a victim of the Taliban’s efforts to quell freedom of expression, with some reports claiming that her attackers accused her of writing “nasty things” about them. Many authors have become targets of fatwas and bodily violence from radical groups, including Maiwan Halabjee, who fled to Norway following a fatwa and blasphemy indictment in his native Iraq, Farag Foda, an Egyptian human rights activist who was assassinated by extremists, and Malalai Joya, a former member of Afghanistan’s parliament who has survived several assassination attempts.

Programs such as the Afghan Women’s Writing Project seek to establish safe spaces for women to share their experiences, and, along with the works of authors like Sushmita Banerjee, are responsible for bringing the voice of Afghan women to a global readership.  Despite the adversity these writers continue to face, they leave a legacy of courage and hope for a better future.

Yesterday, Afghan officials announced that they had arrested two suspects in the writer’s murder. According to NDTV, the men belong to the Haqanni Network, a Taliban affiliate, and have confessed to killing Banerjee.


Amy Conchie is assistant to the publisher at Melville House.