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The Guarded Tongue:
Women's Writing & Censorship in India

The Gender and Censorship Project in India is the most ambitious program Women's WORLD has yet undertaken. It culminated in July 2001, in a conference of 200 women writers, and a publication, The Guarded Tongue: Women's Writing & Censorship in India, which summed up discussions from earlier regional workshops. Selections from The Guarded Tongue follow, along with a more detailed description of the program.

Introduction

I Have No Wings
Urdu Writers' Workshop
What do women write about?
Jameela Nishat

Betwixt Rebellion and Reconciliation
Telugu Writers' Workshop
Why do women write?
VOLGA

Ayoni
VOLGA

Cactus Blossoms
Marathi Writers' Workshop
The need for time and space
Gouri Salvi

Cursed Souls?
Malayalam Writers' Workshop
Lessons from Experience
Lalithambika Antherjanam

Needle-and-Thread Syndrome
Hindi Writers' Workshop
Respectability
Ritu Menon

The Door
Anamika

The Fish - 1
Gagan Gill

The Fish - 2
Gagan Gill

A Drop of Poison
Tamil Writers' Workshop
The Squirrel
Ambai

Women's WORLD Program in India:
The Gender and Censorship Project

The Gender and Censorship Project in India is the most ambitious program Women's WORLD has undertaken. It is a ten-language partnership project with Asmita, an activist women's organization located in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh. Asmita's program includes legal assistance for women in distress; networking and campaigns, particularly around violence against women; training, popular education and outreach; and research, publications and cultural work. The Gender and Censorship project was designed and led by a five-woman team: Ritu Menon of Women's WORLD (co-founder of Kali for Women, the oldest women's press in Asia); Vasanth Kannabiran and Volga, two leading members of Asmita; and the feminist writers Ammu Joseph and Gouri Salvi. The purpose of the project was

. . . to see how gender-based censorship, embedded as it is in a range of social and cultural mechanisms that invalidate women's experience and exclude them from political discourse, is far more pervasive and far more difficult to confront than official suppression. To see how critical the silencing of women, and the use of systemic force to ensure that silence, is to the maintenance and perpetuation of patriarchal power. (Gender & Censorship Project Workshops Reports, p. 4)

The project design consisted of five components, all of which have now been concluded except for the publications. They were

  • Three-day research workshops of 15 to 25 women writers, diverse in age, class, genre, and degree of recognition, held in ten different Indian languages: Bengali, English, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Malayalam, Marathi, Telugu, Tamil, and Urdu. Selection of participants was done with local writers and/or non-profits; and participating writers were asked to prepare by reading The Power of the Word in translation
  • Survey research with a questionnaire designed by social scientists
  • In depth follow-up interviews of five writers from each language group
  • A concluding conference bringing all the participants together, held in August 2001
  • Publications summarizing the findings, including two volumes of interviews

The project's goals were to build an Indian network of women writers who will provide solidarity and support to one another; facilitate the creation of alternative forums for women's writing; empower women by providing opportunities and training for skill development in all aspects of publishing; interact with other educational and literacy programs in producing or providing gender-sensitive material; analyze how and when particular forms of censorship operate; and resist the more blatant threats to freedom of expression by religious groups or the state. The project has already stimulated the first anthology of Urdu women's literature published in India in the last sixty years; a ground-breaking panel on women and censorship at the annual meeting of the Indian Association for Women's Studies; the formation of the first Indian women writers association in West Bengal; and considerable attention in the press. Project support was provided by the World Association for Christian Communications (WACC), the Interchurch Organization for Development Cooperation (ICCO), and the Prince Claus Fund for Culture and Development.

By all accounts, the workshops were a series of revelations of the connections between self and situation:

The thread that ran through most of these workshops was disconnection: the disconnection between what women said and what they wrote; between their spoken words and their silences; between their husbands' and fathers' apparent encouragement and support, and their explicit, disapproving silence when a norm was violated. Between women as the subject matter of writing and women as subjects and writers. Between language, literature and social movements, and the emergence of women's voices. Between language and gender, gender and genre.

A taste of the project's richness, and of Indian women's writing, can be found in these brief selections from the project report, The Guarded Tongue: Women's Writing and Censorship in India.