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 Against Self-Censorship
 Meredith Tax, USA
 November 1, 2001
 
"Everything has changed." The mantra on everyone’s lips since September 11 is true, in that Americans now share the insecurity and fear that have been the lot of people living in less protected parts of the globe for many years. But while our fear of being attacked and the "war against terrorism" may be new, they are merely symptoms of an intensification of the fundamental conflict between two global tendencies that has been going on for the last ten years. The first of these tendencies is globalization, driven by the search for profit and embodied in US financiers whose power was symbolized by the World Trade Center. The second tendency is a militant patriarchal backlash by men who see the global "New World Order" as a threat to all they hold sacred, and who will stop at nothing to impose their own version of religious or national purity on those under their control. As this conflict escalates, we—ordinary citizens, and especially women—find ourselves trapped between two groups of furious male warriors, one talking crusade, the other talking jihad, and neither willing to settle for less than total victory. The hotter and more widespread this conflict becomes, the more of a threat it is to all of us—most urgently to the people of Afghanistan. A contradiction so deep cannot be solved by bombing; it must be cooled down and addressed by means other than war.

Living in the US, barraged by news of anthrax-poisoned envelopes, it is difficult to be aware of any threat other than terrorists. But now as never before Americans must understand the costs of political and economic decisions that have been made in the last twenty years, costs shown not only by the low opinion people around the world have of the United States, but by the fact that our public health system has been destroyed to the extent that it cannot cope with the threat of an anthrax epidemic, and that decisions about how to allocate aid after the World Trade Center are being made, not after careful consideration of what will best serve all the people affected by the tragedy, but at the bidding of lobbyists for the airline industry. We must be very conscious that we are being led by a President who was not elected but was chosen by decree, by a Supreme Court the majority of whose judges were themselves put into place by a well-financed, well-organized cabal of wildly conservative Republicans—men so patriarchal that, when it comes to the position of women, they may have as much in common with the leaders of the Taliban as they do with readers of this magazine.

We are thus, as women and as Americans, facing a political crisis as severe as any we have experienced in our lifetimes. At such a moment, it is the responsibility of every citizen to become as well informed as possible, think clearly, and speak up boldly about government policies both to her elected representatives and to the people around her. War always brings a danger of self-censorship by people who think that silence is the best way to support their country. This is a particular danger for women, since one of the first things to vanish in wartime is the voice of women. How many women’s voices have you heard in major media coverage of the war? There are a few perky female newscasters, a few poster girls in uniform bravely leaving their children—and the victims, the bereaved of the World Trade Center and the Afghani women, muffled in black burkhas. These images of women are being used to reinforce the call to war.

Seeing newscasts of the horrendous conditions of Afghani women, many have responded by feeling anything is justified to help them, even war. But is this war going to help the women of Afghanistan? If that was our government’s aim, they’ve had plenty of other opportunities; feminists have been saying for years that Afghanistan was a human rights disaster area and something must be done. Did anybody listen? Our government virtually created the Taliban, with help from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, where women are forbidden by law even to learn how to drive. Saudi women wear burkhas too, but nobody is showing images of them. Globalizing forces, including the US Government, support the emancipation of women when that means getting poor women from villages to work in export processing zones or brothels near US military bases, but when it means going up against a military ally that has oil, it’s another story. What are women’s rights next to cheap gas?

That is why it is more important now than ever for feminists to think straight and speak up. This will not be easy. During a war, voices for peace are often called traitors, and women are considered unqualified to speak except as mothers or victims. And our leaders are talking of a "new Cold War" that will last many years. I am old enough to remember the first Cold War. I remember the way we kids were terrorized by air raid drills; the sirens would scream and we would have to kneel against the wall in the school basement or get under our desks. This was called "civil defense," as in "homeland defense." Anybody who watched TV knew how much your desk would protect you from a nuclear attack. But nobody said so, for this was the McCarthy era and you weren’t supposed to think for yourself.

Now the repression is starting again. The limitations on war news released to the national media, and the media’s own willingness to self-censor, are obvious enough. My organization, the Women’s World Network for Rights, Literature, and Development (Women’s WORLD) deals with gender and censorship. We are going to track the global and local effects of the "war on terrorism," on feminists’ freedom of speech and organization. Some danger signs:

Women in Black is a global feminist network of local women who do vigils against war at the same place very week, dressed in black. The idea started in Israel, spread to Serbia when war began in the former Yugoslavia, and has since been adopted in many other countries. The Israeli and Serbian groups were nominated this year for the Nobel Peace Prize. It is hard to imagine anyone less likely to be involved in terrorist attacks than women who work for peace by doing vigils. Yet, on September 24, Kate Raphael, a member of Women in Black in San Francisco, was called by the FBI and asked to come in for questioning about whom she knew in the Middle East. Is it possible that the FBI has failed to notice that all of the Al Qaeda terrorists anybody has turned up so far are men? Are they unaware of the deep contempt religious fundamentalists of all faiths hold for women, which makes it most unlikely they would entrust them with any major political responsibility? Or are they using the "war against terrorism" to go fishing for information about their old enemy, the peace movement?

Kate Raphael isn’t the only woman who has been targeted. Think of the uproar about Susan Sontag’s comparatively mild criticisms in The New Yorker, and about Barbara Kingsolver’s Los Angeles Times op eds against the right-wing misuse of patriotism. In Canada, Sunera Thobani, a women’s studies professor at the University of British Columbia, made a speech at a Vancouver conference on violence against women. While she expressed grief for the World Trade Center victims and solidarity with the women of Afghanistan, she also addressed the history of US foreign policy in Africa, Asia and Latin America and said the result of this war would be an increase in violence against women. In the ensuring media frenzy, she was not only trashed as a "hate-monger" but became the subject of questions in Parliament.

Such attacks are designed to create an atmosphere of intimidation in which it becomes difficult or impossible for women to speak critically of the war. It is essential to see this as censorship, an enemy of the very democratic values the "war on terrorism" is supposed to defend. Evade censorship by going outside the regular media channels; web sites like Common Dreams; AlterNet; Peace Women; and WHRnet are alternate sources of information when the mainstream rallies round the flag. Fight censorship by speaking up, no matter what your opinion. Write letters to Congress, to your state legislature, and to the papers; call the media if they are doing something objectionable or something terrific; and most important of all, talk to your neighbors and friends about politics. The women of Afghanistan lost their public voice; let’s not let the "war on terrorism" take ours.

From Lilith (November 2001).