Women's WORLD and Human Rights

Women's WORLD defends feminist writers who are threatened because of their writing, their views on the oppression of women, or the way they live. Any of these things can provide a pretext for censors as long as there are people who believe that a woman, simply because she is a woman, should have no right to free expression, no personal autonomy, and no public voice. Individual cases are just the tip of the iceberg, signalling the vast, systemic suppression of women's ideas and experience going on beneath the surface.

The Right to Free Expression and the Global Women's Movement

Free expression is a fundamental human right, for women as for men. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says: "Everyone has the right to the freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers." Thus the silencing of women is clearly a human rights abuse, demanding a remedy. Nevertheless, you will not find it mentioned in the programs of most human rights groups, or most global feminist organizations, which still see silencing as a cultural question, a side issue, a sub-category of literature or education—as if culture were some free-floating realm separate from economics, law, and politics!

In fact, culture is an enormously important variable in the oppression of women and this compartmentalized way of thinking harms our movement, the goal of which is to bring about the universal and irrevocable emancipation of women. We cannot rise to this task if our thinking is constrained by the categories of academic disciplines and foundation program guidelines. We need a holistic vision that takes in all the realms of our experience and uses the tension between them to move us forward. That means we must deal with gender-based censorship as an issue, as well as defend individual women who are attacked for what they say.

Individual Human Rights Cases

Individual cases illuminate the problem, showing the great variety of ways in which women's voices can be suppressed. Extreme efforts to silence a writer demand public intervention. Although we know of no other groups that have taken up gender-based censorship as an issue, a number of human rights organizations will come to the defense of individual women writers who are persecuted. These include Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, International PEN, the Committee to Protect Journalists and, within the United States, the National Coalition Against Censorship.

Women's WORLD collaborates with all these organizations. But we have a special interest in cases that concern feminist issues or illustrate specific ways that women are censored, and where solidarity from the feminist movement can be particularly helpful. We also try to incorporate women writers under attack into our network, so they are able to give as well as experience aid. Because our resources are small, often the main way we can help is through moral support and solidarity, and by connecting writers to more established organizations.

Being part of a network of other censored writers can be vitally important in overcoming the disorientation experienced by a writer who suddenly finds herself under attack. Often she is quite isolated in her own country. Knowing that somebody outside cares can be a lifesaver. Naming the problem can help her stop blaming herself and enable her to mobilize her own resources and energy to fight what otherwise could seem a bewildering sequence of events.

The following discusses a few important cases by type. A longer list can be found in The Power of the Word: Culture, Censorship and Voice. But it must be emphasized that, while these flagrant cases are the most visible, and the most susceptible to intervention by an international network, they are not the most common. Far more frequent, indeed, so frequent as to appear "normal" are gender-related cases of censorship by husband, family, school, university, employer, publisher, reviewer, or political associates, and, most of all, by the writer herself.

Censorship by Political Fundamentalists

Taslima Nasrin is a Bangladeshi poet, novelist and newspaper columnist, who was attacked and put under a death threat by Islamists in 1993-94 because of her writing on women and religion. During the same period, her novel, Lajja, was censored and her passport was confiscated for months by a government embarrassed by her revelations about the persecution of its Hindu minority. The situation escalated after an Indian newspaper published an interview with Nasrin in which she said that the Shariat law should be revised. Islamists in Bangladesh took to the streets with calls for her death, the Bangladeshi government responded with a warrant for her arrest on charges of "offending religious sensibilities," and Nasrin, fearing she would be killed in prison, went underground. Through concerted efforts involving her lawyers, International PEN, other human rights groups, and feminist support activities in many countries, Nasrin eventually got out of Bangladesh and into political asylum in Sweden.

archive The drama continued when Nasrin returned to Bangladesh in 2000 to see her dying mother, and was greeted by a second wave of death threats. Since going into exile, she has written a pathbreaking memoir, My Girlhood, which has been published in English by Kali for Women (co-directed by Women's WORLD board member Ritu Menon).

Cases like Nasrin's are particularly difficult because they involve struggle between conflicting political factions, one of which stands for political fundamentalism, the other for comparative liberalization. Sometimes the conflicting forces exist within the same state apparatus, as in Iran, where the feminist film director and screenwriter, Tahmineh Milani was arrested by the Revolutionary Court on August 27, 2001, and held for some days for interrogation, during which time her house was searched and items were confiscated. Tahmineh Milani is one of Iran's few established women film-makers; her best known film is Two Women (1999). She was arrested in connection with her most recent film, The Hidden Half (2001), although the film had been approved by the Ministry of Culture, and charged with "supporting those waging war against God and misusing the arts in support of counterrevolutionary and armed opposition groups." These crimes are punishable by execution under Islamic law in Iran. Based on a contemporary novel, The Hidden Half depicts a married woman's memories of an affair in the early 1980s, just after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and focusses on left-wing student groups which were active in the struggle against the Shah but were suppressed by Islamic factions after the revolution in 1979. The court felt that it showed leftist revolutionaries in too sympathetic a light, and was disturbed by an interview with Milani in a liberal newspaper just after the film's release, when she said that everything in the film was true and at least ten of her friends had been executed. She was released on bail, after an intervention on her behalf by President Khatami, but the charges have not been dropped. More than 1,500 people have signed an international declaration of solidarity on her behalf. news & events

Another method of censorship employed by fundamentalists is forced divorce, which happens if a person is found guilty of apostasy. An apostate is not allowed to be married to a Muslim and under Shariat law must be divorced. Two unsucessful attempts at forced divorce have been used against feminists: the 1989 case against Toujan al-Faisal in Jordan, and the case brought against Egyptian writer Nawal el Saadawi in 2000. But sometimes these attacks are successful: Nasr Abu Zayd, a scholar whose writing appeared too secularist to his Islamist critics, had to leave Egypt in 1995 in order to remain married to his wife, Ebtehal Younes.

Although Christian fundamentalists in the United States usually attack feminists through legal means rather than death threats (except in the case of anti-abortionists, who are responsible for a number of murders), they are no less virulent than fundamentalists of other faiths. Many of their campaigns are coordinated through the Christian Coalition, which has been particularly active in trying to censor children's literature in schools and public libraries, concentrating on books with gay or anti-authoritarian characters, or magical themes. Christian fundamentalists have led campaigns against sex education in the schools; persecuted women's studies and gay studies programs at the university level; and institutionalized the "gag rule," which prevents abortion counseling in connection with any US-funded health programs. Because most children's books are written by women, a large majority of the authors they have targeted are female, among them Meredith Tax, President of Women's WORLD. archive

The most extreme forms of religious fundamentalism prevent women from having any public voice or education. The Taliban's crimes against women, their closure of all schools for girls, their ban on women working or even walking in the street alone, are well known. Islamist atrocities in Algeria are no less dramatic, including the assassination of hundreds of schoolteachers and students, to prevent girls from being educated. Khalida Messaoudi, Algerian feminist and Member of Parliament, author with Elisabeth Schemla of Unbowed: An Algerian Woman Confronts Islamic Fundamentalism, must sleep somewhere different each night and live in hiding because of her outspoken opposition to the Islamists, on the one hand, and the repressive one party state, on the other. (See Oneworld)

Censorship by the Military

Women who criticize war are never popular with warrior-states, since so much of the emotional basis of war is an appeal to patriarchal sentiments about protecting "our" women from the enemy (with the implied permission to violate "their" women). Male pacifists or resisters can be stigmatized as cowards, but women critics damage the national consensus that this is a just war. As long as they stay safely at home, they can be told they know nothing of war, but what if they dare to go to the front lines and get eyewitness testimony that undermines the war in the words of the troops themselves? The cases of the following three women, all journalists who base their work on interviews and oral history, are remarkably similar: a journey to the war zone, interviews with soldiers, documentation of atrocities and government lies, resulting persecution, and continued commitment.

Svetlana Alexievich is a journalist and oral historian in Belarus, one of the few remaining Stalinist states, who did a series of newspaper interviews with Russian soldiers during the Afghani War, revealing what was really going on. Since perestroika had already begun, the government couldn't simply throw her in prison; instead, in 1993, she was prosecuted for defamation in three separate show trials by the army and the KGB. The court costs exhausted her income and the judge confiscated her tapes, preventing her from writing a second book on the war. Women's WORLD became involved during this period and nominated Alexievich for a Dashiell Hammett-Lillian Hellman award, a cash prize given by Human Rights Watch to censored writers. Unintimidated, Alexievich used the prize money to begin an oral history of the Chernobyl disaster, an even more dangerous subject. In 1995, after two years interviewing in the contaminated zone, she became critically ill with viral meningitis. With help from our network and Swedish PEN's prestigious Tucholsky Prize, she was able to complete her book, Chernobyl Prayer, despite her illness; it has been translated into many languages and won a major Russian award. (See Autodafe)

Nadire Mater, a journalist for more than twenty years, was a founding member of the Turkish Human Rights Association in 1986 and has been active in the feminist movement and the "Saturday Mothers' Vigils" by mothers of the disappeared. Since 1991, she has worked for the IPS (InterPress Service), and she was the Turkish representative of Reporters Without Borders from 1994 to 2000. In 1997, she received a MacArthur Foundation Research and Writing Award in Global Security and Sustainability, to prepare a book consisting of testimonies from forty-two ex-conscripts who had served in the ongoing war against the Kurds in Southeastern Turkey. This research led to Mehmet's Book, the only book that shows the war from the point of view of the ordinary draftee. Published in April 1999, by Metis Press, a well-known publisher in Istanbul, Mehmet's Book immediately become a best-seller, with four editions in three months. It had sold over 9,000 legal copies and many more in pirate editions when it was suddenly banned that June. The author and publisher were charged with "insulting and belittling the military," a crime equivalent to treason, carrying a possible sentence of years in prison. (See Digital Freedom Network.) Although Turkey has the distinction of having more writers in prison than any other country in the world, it has come under strong human rights pressure because of its desire to join the European Union. This has made the government somewhat more receptive to international protest; thus, after a global campaign, Mater was acquitted in September 2000. She has spent the last year building a human rights news website.

Anna Politkovskaya is a well-known Russian journalist, employed by a major Moscow daily, Novaya Gazeta, who has been covering the war in Chechyna since 1999 and is now under death threat. She has focussed on civilian daily life in a genocidal civil war, told of atrocities committed by both sides, and exposed military profiteers and the practice of letting criminals out of prison to serve as mercenary soldiers in Chechyna. In September 2001, she was warned not to return to Chechyna, or she would be killed, but she had to go back to deliver money she had collected for humanitarian aid. On her arrival, she met the head of a human rights commission investigating atrocities by the Russian military in Chechyna; the commission was returning to Moscow that day to present their findings to Putin. An hour after she spoke to him, the helicopter carrying him and his companions exploded. The military said it was shot down by Chechens, but Politkovskaya wrote an article saying this was impossible because security had been too tight that day. archive
When Politkovskaya returned to Moscow, the Ministry of Defense, who knew all about her article before it was published, admitted her conclusions were correct but said that the article must be suppressed. They also told her that a lieutenant called Kadet had sworn to kill her. Her newspaper gave her a bodyguard but, after repeated threats, her editor felt Kadet could not be acting alone, and insisted, in October, that she flee to Vienna. Even after she left, phone threats continued and a woman who looked like her was murdered in the entrance to her block of flats. Politkovskaya returned to Moscow on December 8, to give evidence about the threats against her. Her book, A Dirty War: A Russian Reporter in Chechya, was recently published in England.

Censorship by Terror and State Responses to Terror

Since Sepember 11, there has been a tendency, at least in the North, to think of terrorism as a highly capitalized phenomenon, moving people freely across borders. But, in most parts of the world, terror is exercised mainly by local gangs, right-wing paramilitary armies, and left-wing revolutionary groups, and its normal weapons are dynamite, machine guns, and machetes. Much of this terrorism is not fuelled by ideology but by gangster or warlord motives: theft and expropriation of land, control of turf and supply routes, and maintenance of a commanding position in the industry (usually the narcotics industry). In the service of these goals, gangsters, rogue armies, and narco-mafias terrorize civilian populations through kidnapping, rape, and murder. Other terrorists kidnap, rape, and murder in the service of a political agenda, sometimes left, sometimes right. While such groups claim to be fighting for national or human liberation when seeking political support, money, or military training abroad, their real agenda is shown by their deeds. To the civilians being kidnapped, raped, murdered, and expropriated, there is little to choose between left-wing revolutionaries, right-wing paramiliary forces, and gangsters. Anyone who thinks these methods can lead to human liberation hasn't studied much history.

Terrorists and gangsters are seldom very interested in writers except for the journalists and human rights activists who try to expose them, whom they kill without compunction. But terrorists and gangsters are extremely interested in any popular movement that tries to operate in space they wish to control. Squeezed between terrorist gangs and the inevitable military response, the social space available for civil society shrinks and shrinks until it is almost impossible for people to do anything but stay in their houses alone. In Sri Lanka, the struggle between the government and the Tamil Tigers has been going on since the 1980s, with thousands upon thousands killed by one side or the other. Similarly, protracted civil wars, sometimes ethnic, sometimes political, sometimes with no clear agenda but turf, have raged for decades in Angola, Mozambique, the Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Turkey, Ireland, El Salvador, Columbia, always with civilians caught in the middle, often with children kidnapped and used as troops. Such wars close up all civil social space and make it impossible for women—for anyone—to organize or have a public voice.

Peru was until recently another example. In 1992, Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) decided to carry its war from the countryside into the city, and claimed the poor neighborhoods as its turf, tolerating no competition from non-profits and community organizations. Because feminists were organizing in these neighborhoods, they were targeted too, particularly FEPOMOUVES, a women's community organization in the El Salvador shantytown of Lima, led by Maria Elena Moyana, a young, black single mother. (See Yolanda Sala) Moyano believed that the best response to the terrorism of the
Shining Path was to strengthen the participation of the poor in civil society and, when Sendero called an "armed strike" for February 14, 1992, demanding that no one leave their homes, she led a march of thousands of people, filling the streets. The next day, at a community meeting, she was surrounded by five people who shot her, ordered a teen-age boy to tie dynamite to her body, and blew her up in front of her children and the women from the organization. Sendero also threatened feminist groups and other non-profits as enemies of the "people's war," and attempted to close down their media and silence their writers. For many years, Peru was caught between the terror of Sendero and the counter-terror of the Fujimori dictatorship, which together closed up any space for free speech and civil society.

Censorship Through "Trial by Public Opinion"

"Trial by public opinion," as it used to be called in Stalin's day, is a technique used by authoritarian states, political parties, and movements when they want to go after a dissident while having the persecution appear to be the spontaneous result of public indignation. This technique was used during the civil war in the former Yugoslavia, when people were frequently denounced in the government-owned or -sponsored press for ethnic or ideological crimes. in Croatia, for instance, this could be done without direct involvement from the government because the press was nominally "independent," although in fact all the papers but one were printed at the government printing press. In 1993, five women writers were targeted for insufficient nationalism and branded as "Yugo-nostalgics" in a latter-day witch trial by media. They were, in fact, called the "five Croatian Witches." archive Dubravka Ugresic had written a number of pieces satirizing Croatian nationalism that were doubly offensive because published abroad. Power of the Word II Slavenka Drakulic also offended by being published more abroad than most Croatian men. Vesna Kesic had attacked all wartime rapes, and described them as crimes of men against women, rather than distinguishing between rapes committed by Serbs (the enemy) and rapes committed by Croats and Bosnians. Rada Ivekovic was not only a feminist critic of nationalism, but had family connections to people in the old Yugoslav government and thus was tainted in the eyes of the new Croatian one. And Jelena Lovric had exposed government corruption. The media campaign against these five was long and scurrilous, involving, in some cases, phone threats and publication of their addresses and phone numbers. While a libel suit against the instigating paper, Globus, eventually succeeded, in the meantime three of the "witches" had been forced into self-exile.

Similar media campaigns have been launched in the US against writers who expressed reservations or criticisms of the post-September 11 "war on terrorism," including even established women writers like Susan Sontag, Barbara Kingsolver, and Katha Pollitt. The Crisis, Open Forum This sort of attack is a familiar conservative technique in the United States but many Canadians were surprised when Sunera Thobani, a women's studies professor at the University of British Columbia, became a simliar target after she made a speech critical of Bush's "war on Terrorism" at an annual conference on violence against women. There was a storm of media condemnation of the speech, even questions in Parliament, and she got so many death threats that the university posted a security guard outside her classes. The Crisis, Open Forum (See UBC Journalism Review)

Women's WORLD is interested in tracking all instances of this kind of censorship. Please write us, if you know of anyone being treated in the ways described above, at

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