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April 2007 

Women’s WORLD-India recently held an important colloquium called “The Power of the Word” on Feb. 23-25, 2007, which brought together feminist writers from Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and many parts of India, with additional participation by writers from Peru, Russia and the US. The meeting focused on the difficulties of “Writing in a Time of Siege,” including state pressures, ethnic wars, a publishing environment where English is driving out other languages, and more intimate problems likeself-censorship and family pressures. The colloquium was organized by the Women’s WORLD-India steering committee, consisting of Kamla Bhasin, Ammu Joseph, Vasanth Kannabiran, P. Lalitha Kumari (Volga), and Women’s WORLD board member Ritu Menon. Ammu Joseph has written this account of the project:

Women’s words and worlds

What do women writers talk about? If the South Asian Women Writers’ Colloquium held in New Delhi recently is anything to go by, the answer is: everything – revolution and relationships, politics and pain, gender and genocide, markets and mothers, caste and creativity, language and loneliness, form and family, success and struggle, poverty and privilege, rootedness and rootlessness.

The colloquium brought together over 40 writers of fiction, poetry and what many referred to as creative non-fiction from five countries of the region and farther afield. The women, representing literatures in 13 languages—some also involved in journalism and academic writing —spent three intense days together, discussing their lives and their work, exchanging ideas and experiences, overcoming or, when necessary, circumventing potential barriers of language, location, caste, creed, ideology and world view.

Bringing together concerns about literature and society, globalisation and culture, censorship and human rights, the hybrid event titled “The Power of the Word” was organised by Women’s WORLD India, newly established as a chapter of the New York based Women's World Organisation for Rights, Literature and Development, an international free-speech network of feminist writers, journalists, editors and publishers that addresses issues of gender-based censorship. The literary gathering with a difference set out to explore the diverse subtle and not so subtle forms of censorship faced by writers in general and women writers in particular.

The February get-together represented the next stage of the work Women’s WORLD has been doing in India since 1999. Board members of the international parent organisation -- Mariella Sala from Peru, Nadezdha Azhgikhina from Russia and Meredith Tax from the U.S. – took part in a panel discussion on “Culture, Censorship & Voice.” Celebrated American feminist writer and activist Gloria Steinem also participated in the meeting and delivered a well-attended public lecture titled “Secret Censors, Public Solutions.”

Writing in a time of siege

Discussions at the colloquium – in which the intellectual and the emotional mingled to address the personal and the political -- revolved around four intersecting themes that enabled participants to move back and forth between them. In fact, the crossover nature of the event, the wide range of issues that emerged, the natural to and fro between erudite, cerebral debates and intuitive, even intimate, conversations illustrated some of the points made by linguist and poet Rukmini Bhaiya Nair in her scholarly presentation.

Speaking about different forms of censorship, including what she calls “genre censorship” in which certain forms of expression – especially oral ones like gossip and white lies – are systematically devalued, she pointed out that traits often disparagingly attributed to women are the very ones that could, if properly utilised, result in an explosion of female creativity: “For in lies are displayed the capacity for fiction, in making connections ‘unsystematically’ the capacity for analogical reasoning and insightful mind-jumps, in childlike-ness the ability to view things anew with a sense of pristine wonder.”

The four themes addressed by participants were “Writing in a time of siege” (raising questions about the social responsibility of writers, especially in times of war, conflict, displacement and dislocation), “Closing spaces in an open market” (scrutinising the so-called openness of the apparently globalised literary market), “Exclusionary practices” (examining the impact of caste, class, sexuality, ethnicity and other markers of difference -- in addition to gender -- on literary acceptability), and “The guarded tongue” (highlighting the role of family, community and other affiliations in determining literary content). The eclectic presentations and the ensuing discussions, which were passionate and sophisticated in turn, threw up a number of issues as well as a variety of perspectives on each.

Expectedly, religion-based identity in a world increasingly dominated by conservative “fundamentalism,” sectarian “communalism,” and the now ubiquitous “war on terror” emerged as a major issue confronting several writers cutting across countries and faiths.

Referring to the peculiar situation of the Muslim woman writer today, Kamila Shamsie from Pakistan highlighted the “hijab or mini-skirt” syndrome that has come into being over the past few years, turning her into a symbol that is in vogue but also shrinking the context in which she is viewed: “In the West people want to talk to me exclusively about Islam and terrorism -- anything else is seen as less important… I am expected to deal with ‘Muslim issues’ whether or not I want to.” On the other hand, Ameena Hussein of Sri Lanka pointed to the “cloud of self-censorship” hanging over her as a member of a community under siege.

Ahmedabad-based Saroop Dhruv and Esther David talked about the painful experience of living and writing in a ghettoised city and polarised society. According to Dhruv, having experienced official and unofficial censorship as well as literary and social boycott over the years, she now plans to write in Hindi rather than Gujarati for a while so that she can at least be read outside the state. David, a Jew whose ancestral home sits on the increasingly tense border between a Muslim-dominated area and an aggressively Hindu neighbourhood, recently reluctantly moved out to a less troubled part of the city and now wonders whether or not she will be able to write in her new alien environment.

Even Kannada writer Vaidehi, for whom her large family always comprised the world in which she wrote, has not been able to insulate herself from the communal tension seeping into her corner of Karnataka. “For two years I have not written a line,” she confessed. “Of course every writer has to take a break once in a while. But that is not the real reason why I have become dumb… The seeds of the events in Gujarat seem to be everywhere, in everybody. I have reached a turning point in my writing. I will guard my tongue for a while and unguard it when I find the idiom to express myself about the world I see around me.”

And then, of course, there is Taslima Nasrin of Bangladesh, who has lived in exile for more than 12 years after a non-bailable arrest warrant was issued against her for advocating a gender-just uniform civil code. That development was famously preceded by the “fatwa” against her and the banning of her book, Lajja – the first in a series of official bans that have ensured that her books are not available in her home country and that at least one cannot be sold in West Bengal, where she now lives on temporary visas that have to be periodically renewed. The struggle continues: lionised by the Hindu right-wing as long as she criticised conservative Islamic practices, Nasrin is now out of favour with them for daring to oppose Hindutva.

Language and marketing

Another key concern flagged by several participants was the cultural impact of globalisation and, especially, the resurgence of English as the world language, the language of power. Senior Bengali writer Nabaneeta Dev Sen observed that English is increasingly overpowering the identity of Indian literature, which is often reduced, especially in international circles, to works in English by a few writers based in the country and many more from the diaspora.

Acknowledging that the urban educated middle class readership is shifting to English, Telugu writer Volga pointed to the potentially large audience for writing in Indian languages among the newly educated, which is currently untapped because the public library system is dying from neglect and few book sellers operate in rural areas. Referring to the innovative methods used by private companies to sell consumer products in the rural market, she suggested that writers and publishers may also have to evolve imaginative strategies to make literature in local languages accessible to emerging new readers.

A different and contentious debate on language was sparked off by Tamil writer Bama’s assertion about her use of the Dalit dialect, which conservative readers and critics view as “bawdy, too earthy, unsuitable and unworthy” for use in literature. When some writers suggested that a glossary was necessary to make Dalit writing comprehensible to readers familiar with the more standard literary version of their respective languages, Gloria Steinem pointed out that several translators of Alice Walker’s “The Colour Purple” have used the language of similarly disadvantaged communities in their own countries to retain the flavour of the original.

The pernicious influence of marketing considerations on publishing decisions, and the impact of the impersonal, centralised selection of books by corporate book stores -- which have more or less replaced independent bookshops across the world -- were identified as serious problems by several writers.

Interestingly, even those who have obviously benefited from the apparent opening up of the global market for writing from the region see the flip side of their present currency. Kamila Shamsie, whose books have been published in 15 countries and translated into 12 languages, recently learnt that another writer had been turned down by a leading UK-based publisher on the grounds that they already had two non-British Muslim writers. “I was one of those two writers,” she said. “First I felt embarrassed and guilty and then I was furious… Such segmentation of the market place creates divisions among writers.”

Although “women’s writing, like Dalit writing, has become a much wanted commodity in the literary market,” as Malayalam writer Anitha Thampi put it, Bengali writer Mandakranta Sen suggested that this “open market believes in controlled liberation.” Speaking from her own experience of having been welcomed and lauded as long as she produced “sweet and spicy dishes and served them hot,” and losing her self-proclaimed patrons as she grew into a creative writer with both “consciousness and conscience,” she said, “Women, who have always been treated by patriarchy as commodities, are now being sold in a smarter package, more colourful and attractive, complete with a manufacturer’s seal and an expiry date.”

Geetanjali Shree, who writes in Hindi, proposed that what is currently taking place is really “maramari” – a battle for spaces. “If the market seeks to direct and influence me,” she argued, “I too seek to shape the market. I play my own games to turn the market around to suit me, to open shop for my own product, and I feel happy to be in the curio shop for rare items rather than in the more popular, simple, easy appeal stores!”

Speaking about the role played by writers in the recent successful people’s movement in Nepal, Manjushree Thapa pointed out that it is always fraught to write in the middle of a revolution: “Every word is politicised and every loyalty is questioned. For writers … the challenge is to overcome the impediments to speaking out. For it is not the speaking that harms, but the silence...”

But in present-day Sri Lanka speaking out can be lethal. Sunethra Rajakarunanayake mentioned posters openly stating that “Marxist Tigers, Media Tigers and NGO Tigers should be killed” in an obvious warning to those who dare to see things from the Tamil side of the ongoing ethnic conflict. According to Anoma Rajakaruna, with the Prevention of Terrorism Act in place, the message is clear: “If you don’t guard your tongue we cannot guarantee your security.”

An important leitmotif that ran through the interactions was the role of the family in determining what women write and do not write or, at least, do not publish. For several writers censorship began at home while they were still children or adolescents, whether penning romantic stories or maintaining “secret” diaries. While some have subsequently managed to break free, others are still struggling to find a balance between expressing themselves candidly and not causing hurt. And others -- like Neeman Sobhan, a Rome-based Bangladeshi writer -- have consciously decided to remain, for now, “a scribbler of poems with folded wings, a writer of silences, and of books unwritten.”

According to a fellow Bangladeshi, Shabnam Nadiya, “It is the mom-looking-over-the shoulder syndrome that I find most insidious…” While a formal ban can cause despair and frustration, she said, at least it is overt and identifiable -- “But what about the other thing, the silencing that has so little formal expression but is bone-deep?”

In the end, each writer obviously finds her own path. “I write only under siege,” said Feryal Ali Gauhar of Pakistan. “It is only possible for me to write from deep anguish.” But according to compatriot Fahmida Riaz, who lived in self-imposed exile in India for several years to avoid cases against her as the editor/publisher of a socio-political magazine, and now publishes books for women and children, “My way of giving myself some support as a writer is to organise and get more women to write… We don’t always fail and flounder – sometimes we succeed.”