Power of the Word I
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VII. Why Censorship Must Be Fought

The subordination of women is basic to all social systems based on dominance; for this reason, conservatives hate and fear the voices of women. That is why so many religions have made rules against women preaching or even speaking in the house of worship. That is why governments keep telling women to keep quiet: "You're in the Constitution," they will say, "you have the vote, so you have no right to complain." But having a voice is as important, perhaps more important, than having a vote. When censors attack women writers, they do so in order to intimidate all women and keep them from using their right to free expression. Gender-based censorship is therefore a problem not only for women writers, but for everyone concerned with the emancipation of women.

Women writers are a threat to systems built on gender hierarchy because they open doors for other women. By expressing the painful contradictions between men and women in her society, by exposing the discrepancy between what society requires of women and what they need to be fulfilled, the woman writer challenges the status quo. Fadwa Tuquan, the Palestinian poet, born in 1917 in Nablus, writes in her autobiography:

"Although confined and deprived of a homeland, my father wanted me to write political poetry....I was expected to create political poetry while the corrupt laws and customs insisted that I remain secluded behind a wall, not able to attend assemblies of men, not hearing the recurrent debates, not participating in public life....Where was I to find an intellectual atmosphere in which I could write political poetry? From the newspaper my father brought home at lunch every day? The newspaper is important but it doesn't have the power to inspire poetry in the depths of one's soul. I was enslaved, isolated in my seclusion from the outside world, and my seclusion was imposed as a duty—I had no choice in the matter. The outside world was taboo for women of good families, and society didn't protest against this seclusion; it was not part of the political agenda....My commitment to life weakened as I remained secluded from the outside world. My soul was tormented because of this seclusion. My father's demands may have initiated my turmoil, but the pain always stayed with me, taking different forms throughout the journey of my life....The process of maturing was a most painful experience in body and soul. I was oppressed, crushed; I felt bent out of shape. I could not participate in any aspect of life unless I pretended to be another person. I became more and more distant."27

Women writers like Fadwa Tuquan make a breach in the wall of silence. They say things no one has ever said before and say them in print, where anyone can read and repeat them. This is a vital step in the creation of modern civil societies, for civil societies are based on discussion, the public use of free expression. Social differences can only be bridged when they are discussed openly and all sides are given room to express their own reality. Any democracy worthy of the name must have room for women's voices as well as men's. But governments that censor women say, "Our country isn't ready for this writer. She makes the conservatives too angry. Our democracy is still too weak to tolerate such extreme views." How is their democracy to become stronger? Censorship does not strengthen the democratic forces in any society.

Women writers symbolize, in their work and life, the free speech of women. That is why they become targets and that is why the global women's movement and all democrats must defend them even when what they say or the way they live is controversial. Women have a right to be controversial: you don't have to agree with someone to defend her right to speak. They have a right to be celibate or childless, to get divorced, to be lesbians, or to have many lovers. You don't have to live the way they do to defend their rights. A democracy is defined by its ability to tolerate differences. The problem here is not the strength of conservatives but the lack of commitment of liberals when it comes to defending the free speech of women. When their own rights are threatened, it's a different story.

The progressive response to an imposed monoculture is not censorship, but the development of democratic, diverse, lively cultures with room for all our voices. Cultural development—women's development as full human beings, ready to speak out and take their place in running society—is an essential part of remaking a world in which the dreadful imbalance between rich and poor, strong and weak, men and women, humans and other species, is becoming a death sentence not only for millions of people, but for the earth itself.

27 Fadwa Tuquan, "Difficult Journey—Mountainous Journey" (1984), in Opening the Gates: A Century of Arab Feminist Writing, ed. Margot Badran and Miriam Cooke, eds. (Virago, London:1992), pp. 27-9.back