The South African writer who was assaulted in Durban last month after saying that she admired Booker Prize-winner Salman Rushdie’s works has been admitted to a mental institution, having been put under extreme pressure by members of the city’s local Muslim community “to repent for her ‘sins’”, the US chapter of the free-expression group PEN has reported.

Ever since psychologist and novelist Zainub Priya Dala was hit in the face with a brick three weeks ago, Durban’s Muslims “have ostracised Dala, putting her under extreme pressure to renounce her statement about Rushdie's work…and to make a public vow of religious loyalty to Islam”, a PEN America Centre statement said. “When she continued to refuse to make a religious vow or other statements inconsistent with her personal beliefs she was admitted to a mental institution. A psychologist by profession, Dala is the mother of a young child and ultimately consented to go to the hospital to avoid intense and intrusive harassment at her home. She also reports continued questioning about her beliefs by hospital staff.”

Shortly after the assault, during which she had been called a “Rushdie bitch”, 40-year-old Dala told that she was feeling shaken up. “This is the first time something like this has happened,” said the writer, who is of Indian heritage. “In one minute my whole life has been turned upside down.”

Confidence takes a hit

The assault left her with a mild concussion, facial injuries and a hairline fracture. “Yes, this has affected my confidence,” said the author of What About Meera. “I'm known to be frank with my words and take strong stances. Earlier, I wasn’t afraid of any backlash. Now, I have gone into my shell. In a way, I feel gagged and can’t speak the way I used to.”

In its statement, PEN America called for Dala’s “immediate and unconditional release from institutionalisation” and asked “all competent South African authorities, including President Zuma, the courts, and the police, to ensure Ms. Dala's safety and to prevent reprisals against her freedom of expression and thought.

Rushdie posted the statement on his Facebook page. “Disgusting,” he commended. “ZP Dala has been put in a mental institution against her will because she said she liked... my work.”

Many South Africans interviewed by Scroll confessed that they were disconcerted by the attack. “I certainly think that artists and writers are going to think twice before taking on sensitive subjects or expressing controversial opinions,” said Anton Harber, founding editor of the Mail and Guardian. “This kind of incident will have a chilling effect.”

The attack on Dala reminded Harber of the outcry that greeted news in 1989 that Rushdie had been invited to speak on censorship at the Congress of South African Writers. “…We received bomb and death threats, so it does not surprise me that there is a fanatical, fundamentalist element which would behave in this way,” he said. The lecture had to be cancelled.

Forced underground

Rushdie’s visit had been planned even though South Africa had already banned his novel, The Satanic Verses. Shortly after, a fatwa against the book by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini  forced the author to spend many years in hiding. Until Dala was taken to the mental institution, she said she had been getting a glimpse of that underground lifestyle.

“This is just a small taste of what he [Rushdie] had to go through,” said Dala, who was born a Hindu and converted to Islam after her marriage 10 years ago.

South Africa has not experienced any major religious tensions, although concerns have recently been expressed about the possibility that some members of the country’s Muslim community ‒ who form 2% of the population ‒ have the potential to be radicalised by ISIS. Dala had attributed the attack to an incremental shrinking of freedoms. “I fear that while there are people struggling to make it a priority, there are others trying to squash it,” she said.

Although free speech was severely curtailed under apartheid and writers were banned or their works censored, it is now enshrined in the constitution

“It is a right that was hard won and ‒ although there have been many contests about the nature of freedom of expression and its limits in a country with such a violent past ‒ it is a right that is valued,” said novelist Margie Orford, President of PEN South Africa. “This attack on Dala shattered that ‒ because of the violence, because of how unexpected the attack was. No one could have imagined it before it happened. Now it is difficult ‒ as a writer ‒ to think of anything else. Does one censor oneself? What should one not say? What should one say - of course writers cannot think like this ‒ but the attack has had a chilling effect, in my view.”

Poor leadership

Orford attributed the confidence to commit such crimes on the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris in January. “It seems to me to be part of a way of thinking that seems to give some individuals a sense of entitlement to act as the judge of what can and cannot be said,” she said.

Poor political leadership is another possible reason for the growing levels of intolerance. “We are a country with a troubled past, but under the leadership of Nelson Mandela all South Africans were encouraged to look beyond their differences and to aspire to be part of a rainbow nation,” said John Conyngham, a novelist and former editor of the Witness newspaper. “Nowadays we have inferior leadership that is more concerned with self-interest than the greater good. At the moment, whenever there are instances of cultural or racial intolerance, in most cases there is an unacceptable silence from the national leaders who should be encouraging all South Africans to be tolerant and to discuss differences so as to resolve them constructively.”

When Scroll spoke to Dala after the attack, she said that she had already started work on her second novel. “Being a writer will not change,” she said. “It is not something I will give up or throw away because of this.”

Neither was she willing to retract her words. “My statement was ‘I enjoy his style,’” she said. “I won’t change my statement on that.”