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V. What Do We Mean by Gender-Based Censorship?

Our definition of censorship is broader than that used by most human rights organizations, which see censorship as the silencing of writers by "jailers, assassins, or official censors."10 We define censorship as any means by which ideas and works of art that express views not in accord with the dominant ideology are prevented from reaching their intended audience. Such works may be seized or banned; they may be ignored, defamed, diminished, or purposely misinterpreted, in order to silence their authors and maintain the existing order.

Every society has some degree of censorship, which it carries out by its normal means of social organization and control. In a military dictatorship, censorship is exercised by the military; in a communist country, by the "dictatorship of the proletariat;" in a market-driven society, by market forces, though the state may be necessary if these do not suffice.

Women who write on issues of state politics are silenced by the same means used to silence men in opposition, though, in practice, even these forms of censorship are affected by gender. But gender-based censorship, as we see it, is much broader and more pervasive than this official, organized suppression. It is embedded in a range of social mechanisms that mute women's voices, deny validity to their experience, and exclude them from the political discourse. Its purpose is to obscure the real conditions of women's lives and the inequity of patriarchal gender relations, and prevent women writers from breaking the silence, by targeting women who don't know their place in order to intimidate the rest.

While some of those who silence women are government officials or religious fanatics, others are parents who decide it doesn't pay to invest in a girl's education, teachers who discourage girls from having ambitions beyond motherhood, publishers who don't think it worth their while to publish books by women, and critics who are unable to take work by women seriously. Censorship often takes place within the family, where manuscripts may be destroyed, suppressed, or altered by husbands, parents, or siblings because of what they reveal about "family secrets." Fathers or husbands may also suppress or appropriate the work of their daughters or wives because they do not wish them to have an independent identity, and feel the work of women in their family properly belongs to them.

In political groups, gender-based censorship is likely to descend on any woman who blows the whistle on sexual harassment and discrimination. In addition, right-wing movements attack women members merely for violating their traditional role by becoming writers or even working outside the home. Left-wing movements, on the other hand, go after those who place too much emphasis on women's issues or say the oppression of women is not caused by economics alone. Movements of oppressed peoples will chastise those who expose sexist practices that should be talked about only "among ourselves." And feminist movements yell foul at women who question their version of the truth or criticize other women too sharply. Such pressures from one's family or closest associates often lead to the most pervasive form of censorship, self-censorship, that holding-back inside when one cannot face the consequences of speaking the truth—consequences that can range from loss of love to causing pain to being thrown in jail, pushed into exile, or killed.

Gender-based censorship can also be seen in the economic and political priorities that mandate widespread female illiteracy, and in educational systems designed to subordinate and invalidate women's experience. The terrible illiteracy in which so many of our sisters are kept is not just the consequence of poverty, overwork, and discrimination within the family; it is a social mechanism designed to ensure female quiescence and deny women a public voice. Attacks on female education are a manifestation of the same desire to keep women silent and subordinate that is apparent in death threats against women writers.

Censorship by death threat is becoming common, particularly in societies at war or gripped by religious fundamentalism, nationalism, and communalism. Rada Ivekovic makes the point in relation to the countries of the former Yugoslavia, "Censorship is the effect of any death threat that is meant more or less seriously. It can come from the militias, armed groups, "other" ethnic groups. It can be more or less legal and official in areas on the brink of war or near the war zone."11

In Algeria, gender-based censorship has taken the form of an explicit war on women, as Islamist militants have targeted women, particularly educated, "modern" ones and women journalists, for rape and murder. While the militants make war on women out of policy, government death squads disguised as militants do so to discredit the Islamists, or simply because they can. Young girls are killed merely for going to school, and more than 200 women writers and journalists have been murdered since 1983. According to Aïcha Lemsine:

"Algerian women writers live under the twin threats of religious fundamentalism and a quasi-fascist military regime. For us, women's issues are issues of survival, our financial resources are nil, and our psychological balance is weakened by fear and anxiety....The intimidations of the regime and the threats of the Islamists have one purpose: to reduce us to silence. Fear is supposed to drive us away from critical thinking and writing, or stress and exile render us unable to produce any literary creation, or the need for cash make us more receptive to the pressures of the government....For all these reasons, Arab and Muslim women need not only to have their lives saved, but also opportunities to create and write. Our voices must be strengthened; we need a network that will give us space for free expression, publication, and international media exposure."12

If female education in Algeria is prevented by murder, in other places it is deterred by sexual harassment, rape, or changing economic priorities that devalue girls. The level of literacy among girls is rapidly decreasing in the new market economies of Eastern Europe. Kenya has been the scene of mass, unpunished rapes at girls' boarding schools. In the United States, the system's abandonment of youth has taken the form of withdrawing funds for education, particularly in the inner cities where most students are minorities. Combined with the influence of the media in sexualizing youth, this abandonment has resulted in an epidemic level of sexual harassment in schools, while many girls see so little hope of further education or a career that they become pregnant before they are fourteen.

Pressures on female education and discrimination within the educational system add up to censorship, for women without education can seldom find a voice. This is its explicit purpose in Russia, according to Nadezhda Azhgikhina:

"If ten and fifteen years ago, schoolteachers wanted all their pupils to enter prestigious high schools and universities, now they speak about the importance of higher education only for boys; they insist on 'natural destiny'for girls. The pioneer of this viewpoint was without any doubt Michael Gorbachev in his famous book, Perestroika, where he proclaimed the importance of 'natural destiny'for Soviet women, 'so tired from emancipation.'...the result has been the growth of real discrimination....in Russia only men can apply to the most prestigious institutes, like the Foreign Affairs Institute (to become a diplomat) or the International Journalism department in Moscow State University. Men have more places in any university department—this is the official position of deans and chairs."13

Discrimination in higher education can also be found in North America, where whole fields of study, such as surgery and the "hard sciences," are nearly closed to women. Those who trespass on these precincts are considered fair game for anything from constant sexual innuendo to murder, like the women engineering students killed by a disgruntled male sniper at McGill University. Academic women who take the alternate route and concentrate on Women's Studies will probably not be killed but their concerns may be marginalized, their work discounted, and their academic credentials questioned. In India, says Ritu Menon, "Those who write from a gender perspective are often charged with 'bias' or with practising 'unsound scholarship,' while those who are politically engaged are told to become more scholarly and not waste so much time on activism."14

Those women who persevere enough to become writers face other obstacles. Even in countries where women have made significant strides towards equality, the pinnacles of culture and politics remain almost exclusively male and are heavily guarded. In 1986, for instance, a world Congress of International PEN, billed as a gathering of the world's greatest minds, was held in New York. Out of 117 panelists, only 16 were women. When women writers called a protest meeting, Norman Mailer, then President of PEN American Center, told the press there were so few women speakers because this was a Congress of intellectuals and very few women were intellectuals.15 He was also heard to say that a leading women writer "dressed like a housewife," that he was not going to let her "pussywhip" one of his male guests, and that these women were just making a fuss because they were "too old to catch men anymore." While a number of male writers supported the protestors, others criticized them for making a fuss and being ill-mannered.

If this was the situation in the U.S. after twenty years of feminist education and organizing, it is unlikely to be better in countries where the feminist movement is new and weak and the dominance of patriarchal culture has gone virtually unchallenged. Some languages do not even use the same word for male and female writer, making women writers seem even more of an anomaly. Says Nadezhda Azhgikhina:

"In the Russian language the word 'woman writer' has a female gender, and using this word is problematical for many because men begin to smile and speak about 'some stupid woman things.' As a result, most serious poets and prose writers prefer to use the word for 'man writer' to defend the quality of their creative activity. Women's creative activity is regarded by men as something inherently non-serious, non-talented, second-rate....Most important literary critics...speak about very strong, popular books written by contemporary women as exceptions to the rule."16

The situation is even more complicated for women who dare to write about the body or sex, thus becoming "bad girls." In most countries of the North, "badness" is commercially viable and women novelists are encouraged to write bedroom scenes if they wish to sell. In others, writing about sex targets women for condemnation. In Russia, for instance, fiction that touches on women's sexuality, birth, health and other "non-aesthetic" things is criticized as being written in a "dirty style" or "in bad taste." A typical statement on women's prose appeared in the national literary weekly, the Lituraturnya Gazeta, which said "women have no soul because their soul is too near to their body."17

Patriarchal attitudes affect women's chances of getting published regardless of the quality of their work. Women in some countries are denied publication altogether on the grounds that women should not be writers, or that they write in a manner inappropriate to women, or that they are writing on subjects women know nothing about—for censorship assigns or disallows certain subjects and styles as "appropriate" for women, then attacks women who cross the line. Lifestyle too can become an issue; in Nepal, one established writer had problems after her divorce; publishers said, "We can't publish her; she's not even living with her husband."

In Russia, during the Soviet period, publishing houses preferred male authors and published women mainly on March 8th, International Women's Day; they still do.18 Publishers have the same preference in Africa, according to many writers. Tsitsi Dangarembga, author of an acclaimed first novel, Nervous Conditions, published abroad, wrote about how impossible it was for her to get published at home:

"Part of my problem getting published in my own country was certainly commercial. Fiction, no matter by whom, hasn't a wide market in Zimbabwe; textbooks do...Into the bargain I was beginning to suspect that the "unsafe issues" I chose to investigate would simply not facilitate publication of my works. As a case in point, one of the rejected plays, "Baines Avenue Way," presented as its protagonist and narrator a woman who earns her living by selling her body to men. Opposite her was a second young woman, this one married, who had suffered a history of abuse at the hands of both her husband and her in-laws. This respectable married lady commits suicide outside the first woman's house where her husband is entertaining himself. I had the distinct impression that the sympathetic young male editor found these women too nasty to be allowed to exist....The entire situation was a double bind. It was imperative that someone write about these issues. Yet once the literature was written no one would publish it."19

Politically engaged writers and feminists who write honestly about the conditions of their sex, and whose criticisms hit home, have the most trouble. Often they are unable to remain in their own countries, and some meet the most severe forms of censorship: imprisonment, violence, death threats, exile, or murder. But even when there is no overt government or religious censorship, they cannot reach their audience without a struggle because of obstacles within the publishing industry. Publishing industries in most of the South are small and embattled, while, in the North, many publishers are interested only in books they think will make money. Most publishers in any country tend to shy away from voices that are too sharply critical, particularly in conservative periods. "We don't want books that are purely negative," they will say when faced with critiques of sexism, racism or colonialism, or, "Not this Sixties stuff again!" Or, "So few black people buy books that we can't afford to publish political books about the black experience."

Ama Ata Aidoo recalls the prominent German publisher's representative who told writers at the Zimbabwe Book Fair in 1992 that Europeans were tired of hearing about colonialism; they wanted to hear about something fresh, something new. Today, publishers in the US tell women "we've heard enough victim stories," or "the time for anger is past;" while those in Chile say, "we must not dwell on the sufferings of the past; this is a time of reconciliation."

If it were not for the existence of feminist-controlled alternative presses, many works of creation and social criticism by women writers would not be published at all. The novelist Flora Nwapa (1931-1993), knowing that African women were unable to get published in their own countries and feeling that Northern publishers lacked enthusiasm for their work, attempted to redress the balance by founding her own publishing company, Tana Press, in eastern Nigeria, to publish her work and that of other African women. Efua Sutherland, the Ghanaian dramatist, began a publishing house in order to make well-written, non-colonialist children's literature available to Ghanaian children. Similar responses to gender-based censorship have led to the formation of feminist presses in Asia, Latin America, and in the North.

As Ritu Menon, copublisher of Kali for Women, the first feminist press in Asia, says, "The resolve to break the silence has found an echo in cultures and communities across the world, and has given rise to new cultural forms. All over the world, women have spontaneously, consciously, deliberately, through periodicals, theoretical debates, books and journals, created another world, and commented on the world they lived in. In cultures where education was denied to women, they demanded it. Where access to print was difficult, they used posters, songs, and low-cost materials. If some women were diffident about writing, others took down what they said and then published it. All the testimonies by women over the last few years have come to us through transcripts, interviews, documents and dossiers put out by small groups of women, networks like Women Living Under Muslim Law and Women Against Fundamentalism; like Red Feminista Latinoamericana y Caribe contra la Violencia Domestica y Sexual; like Fempress, Naiad, Firebrand, Sister Vision."

Many writers, however, need to publish with mainstream publishers for economic reasons. They may also fear their work will be marginalized or ghettoized if it is published by an alternative press. But large publishers too may ghettoize work by assuming its audience is limited to women, gays, blacks, or whatever group the author comes from, as if parochialism were inevitable. Book-sellers do the same—in Chile, according to Cristina da Fonseca and Marjorie Agosin, booksellers refuse even to put books by women in their windows, saying they won't sell—a self-fulfilling prophecy if ever there was one.

Once a book is published, it must be reviewed, and book reviews are a major site of gender-based censorship. Male (or docile female) reviewers may belittle women's books because of their subject, their genre, or, simply, the gender of their authors. Such reviews usually rest on stereotypes—a writer will be criticized either for conforming to a stereotype of her group, or for failing to do so. Reviewers in the North, for instance, often find the voices of women who challenge gender subordination "shrill," "shrewish," "strident," or "unfeminine," and, if they must validate any women, will validate only those who fit a traditional conception of what women are like. Similarly, in the former Yugoslavia, according to Rada Ivekovic, "male critics, when they review women's books at all, do so in an ironic, diminishing way; some women also do that—they write as they are expected to. Male critics often refer to a woman writer in explicit sexual or anatomical terms; they can be very vulgar, especially the young ones in the student press. The stigma, 'women's writing," or "writing like a woman," is seen as diminishing—women are ashamed to be labelled as women."20

The most effective way of silencing women writers is simply to ignore their books; editors do not assign them for review and the male critics who choose their own assignments refuse to do them. According to Marjorie Agosin, in Latin America this bias dooms most of the best women writers to obscurity. ("The work of Diamela Eltit was shredded by its publisher even though she is considered one of Chile's most important writers. The male literary critics who have absolute control of the press refused to review her work. Other women writers in Chile are also not reviewed. Only a best seller like Isabel Allende is reviewed, but she is reviewed negatively and accused of writing only to make money.")21

One of the main ways a society confers prestige and patronage upon writers is through literary prizes and offices. Gender-based censorship takes place when such awards are given largely or exclusively to men. Sometimes women's books are not nominated for or do not win prizes even when they are virtually in a class by themselves. In 1987, Toni Morrison's Beloved, a culminating work in the long and distinguished career of a writer who soon after won the Nobel Prize for Literature, was passed over for the National Book Award. In 1995, the Collected Stories of Grace Paley—the lifetime achievement of a woman considered one of her country's finest writers—was passed over for the National Book Award in favor of a novel by an academic male writer who had already won the prize once. The judges apparently felt that even the best short stories were works of a minor genre compared to the novel and therefore could not be judged in the same terms. Short, slight, lightweight: do these terms describe genre or gender?

In Russia, even during the Soviet period when nominal equality was a goal, women were not chief editors in publishing houses, leaders in writers' organizations, or nominated for prestigious prizes. And there have not yet been women winners of the Russian Booker Prize, though in 1995 a woman, Ludmila Petrushkevskaya, was finally nominated. The failure to be recognized by one's male peers is a bitter pill for women writers, who persist in thinking their work should be treated on its merits. Ama Ata Aidoo tells of interviews with African male writers who, when asked who the important African writers are, list only men. She writes of the bitterness of seeing her first book, the formally daring and politically confrontational Our Sister Killjoy, which was published abroad, be ignored by male writers at home:

"If Killjoy has received recognition elsewhere, it is gratifying. But that is no salve for the hurt received because my own house has put a freeze on it. For surely my brothers know that the only important question is the critical recognition of a book's existence—not necessarily approbation. Writers, artists, and all who create, thrive on controversy. When a critic refuses to talk about your work, that is violence; he is willing you to die as a creative person."22

Even women who achieve international fame are often denied recognition at home. Cristina da Fonseca says:

"History demonstrates that things have not changed for women writers. Gabriela Mistral (1889-1957), the Chilean woman who was the very first writer in all Latin America to win the Nobel Prize (1945), mostly for her love poems to a man, received the Chilean National Prize for Literature only several years later and even now is remembered mainly as a very ugly woman and a lesbian."23

Chilean-American poet Marjorie Agosin has frequently found her Spanish language work dismissed by male critics because of her feminist views, but was recently awarded the prestigious Libro Di Oro, a prize given to the best work written in the U.S. in Spanish, even though the judges were three of her severest critics. The reason: manuscripts were submitted without the authors' names and she wrote in the persona of Vincent van Gogh. According to Merle Hodge, gender-based censorship is a similar problem in calypso—the immensely popular West Indian musical form, combining satire and political commentary:

"In the earliest stages of its development, calypso was a mainly female activity, eventually to be dominated by men. For generations thereafter the female calypsonian was something of an oddity. Today the numbers have grown, largely because some years ago a women's organization, the National Women's Action Committee, instituted a deliberate program of nurturing female calypsonians. This includes the mounting of an annual Calypso Queen competition, as a counterpart to the mainstream Calypso Monarch competition, which is always won by men. Only once in history has a woman won this prestigious national competition, which is seen as identifying the best calypsonian in the country. Very few women even make it to the Finals. Judges seem not to hear the female calypsonians, although there are many accomplished practitioners of the art who are women, some decidedly superior to some of the men who reap the official honors. The female calypsonian suffers a kind of invisibility"....24

Because most books for children are written by women, the invisibility of women writers has tainted the whole category of children's books, which are treated seriously only in exceptional cases, usually involving dead male authors. In Chile, for instance, children's literature is not considered real literature and is never reviewed by literary critics.25 Even in the United States, with its vast children's book industry, there was opposition to including writers of children's books as a category in PEN.

But the age-old methods of silencing women are not working as well as they used to. Despite all the obstacles, an increasing number of women write and publish, stimulated by the growth of women's movements and often nurtured by alternative presses and magazines. Consequently, traditionalists who wish to keep women in their place have had to turn to more active forms of censorship. Self-appointed free enterprise censorship groups, often religious in origin, are a growth industry in the U.S. where, unlike reviewers, they recognize the importance of children's literature. Each year, Christian conservatives mount national campaigns to keep sex education materials and stories that question traditional values out of the schools and public libraries.

10 Siobhan Dowd, "Women and the Word: the Silencing of the Feminine," in Julie Peters and Andrea Wolper, eds., Women's Rights, Human Rights; International Feminist Perspectives (New York: Routledge, 1995), p. 319-20.back
11 Rada Ivekovic, letter to the author, 6/3/95.back
12 Manuscript essay, 1995, in the author's collection.back
13 "Culture and Censorship from the Russian Side", 6/11/95, manuscript in author's collection.back
14 Manuscript notes, 1995, in author's collection.back
15 "Women at PEN Caucus Demand a Greater Role," New York Times, Jan. 17, 1986. The protest was organized by Grace Paley and Meredith Tax, who followed it up by organizing a Women's Committee in PEN American Center. In 1989, Tax began to try to form a similar committee in International PEN, which was done in 1991. By 1994, a number of leading women in the International PEN Women Writers' Committee had become convinced that the problem of gender-based censorship was so serious and extensive that it necessitated an independent organization. They organized Women's WORLD, of which Paley is Chair and Tax President.back
16 Nadezhda Azhgikhina, op. cit.back
17 Ibid. This criticism has been made of the young women writers Marina Paley, Svetlana Vasilenko, and Yelena Tarasova, and particularly of the eminent Ludmila Petrushevskaya.back
18 Nadezhda Azhgikhina, op. cit.back
19 Tsitsi Dangarembga, "This Year, Next Year," Women's Review of Books (Wellesley, MA.), July 1991.back
20 Manuscript, 1995 in the author's possession.back
21 "Some Personal Stories about Gender-Based Censorship," 1995, mss. in author's possession.back
22 Ama Ata Aidoo, "To Be a Woman," in Robin Morgan, ed., Sisterhood is Global (New York: Anchor Books), 1984.back
23 Letter to the author, 6/5/95 back
24 Letter to the author, 6/16/95.back
25 Cristina da Fonseca, letter to author, 6/5/95. back