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


What do women write about? Everything under the sun, is the answer that one hears in chorus. What is it that women can't write about? There is a pause-and one group says (and this is almost unanimous): Religion, Politics and Sex. You then wonder: what is there left to write about? When the women belong to a religious minority leading an embattled existence, whose very identities are under siege, it is amazing to see how much they can and do write about. But even women who claimed they could write about religion and politics said they couldn't write about sex. Many said they couldn't write about themselves. And yet they write. Persistently. Secretly. Writing seems an addiction, a mechanism for survival. One woman spoke of how the minute her husband left for work, she would simply drop whatever she was doing and rush to pick up a pen and paper, pouring out her emotions, until it was time for him to return. The meal may be late and the house a mess, but at least she'd got her writing done. Another writer said she had performed a special do rakat namaz [prayer] so that she would be able to attend the workshop, and for its success.

For most women writers in the country, writing remains an isolated, solitary activity, often surreptitious, generally unacknowledged and undervalued. Although the number of women writers may well run into some thousands, they are still invisible, encounter all manner of obstacles in expressing themselves freely, and experience many forms of direct censorship simply because they are women. Examples of this range from an outright ban on reading and writing and denial of access to education, to a kind of censorship by the market which decides which women can be published and when; as well as to all kinds of self-censorship which often comes into play even before any external silencing takes place. In between lie the constraints placed on women by families, communities and society in general. All of these militate against women's ability and freedom to realise their potential as creative, productive and responsible members of society, actively engaged in progressive social change.

In addition to the above there are some peculiar problems that women writers face, as distinct from men. An age-old gender-division of labour leaves women with little time to write at all, let alone write with freedom. Taboos on what is permissible as subject matter exercise a powerful negative influence. The essence of a culture of 'equality' discourages women from taking their place in progressive writers' organisations and establishments. Because there exist no active networks of women writers, women are usually more vulnerable to attack, and are compelled to defend themselves individually and in isolation. The question of censorship then becomes particular, one woman's misfortune rather than a cultural societal bias that is deeply gendered.

What is it that connects women to writing? And what is it that defines and determines the contours of that writing? What are the limits of the freedom that women are allowed in self-expression? Is a poem or a short story like an exotic sweet or a neatly embroidered handwork or a well-trained voice, to be displayed on occasion as a sign of feminine accomplishment? Marked by measured cadences and neatly drawn lines—never flamboyant, never demanding attention, just gently drawing praise with modest, womanly grace.

These are the questions and confusions that haunted us during and after a series of ten workshops on women and censorship in India. These workshops in Urdu, Telugu, Marathi, Malayalam, Hindi, Gujarati, Kannada, Bangla, English and Tamil, held in different and varied surroundings, brought up new issues and allowed fresh insights into the nature of censorship that women face. The thread that ran through most of them 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.

Our attempt 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 systematic force to ensure that silence, is to the maintenance and perpetuation of patriarchal power.

The Women and Censorship project evolved from, and is informally part of, a worldwide initiative launched by Women's WORLD (Women's World Organization for Rights, Literature, and Development), an international free speech network that seeks to catalyse global feminist work on the right to free expression.

Women writers from across the world who belong to Women's WORLD (a spin-off from the International PEN Women Writers' Committee) believe that gender-based censorship is a major threat to women's freedom of expression. The term, coined in 1993 by Filipina writer, Ninotchka Rosca, refers to the historical, worldwide silencing of women's voices through various means which subtly, but effectively, obstruct the achievement of equality, sustainable livelihoods and peace by women.

The Women's WORLD/Asmita project seeks to explore the issue of gender-based censorship with Indian women engaged in creative writing in different languages. The initial, language-specific workshops planned under the project brought together groups of women writers representing as wide a range as possible in terms of age, experience, perspective, or ideology, geographical location, socio-economic and cultural or ethnic background, genre of writing and other possible variables.

Our objectives are to:

  • build a network of women writers who will provide solidarity

  • and support to each other

  • facilitate the creation of alternative forums for women's
    writing to be published and circulated

  • analyse how and when particular forms of censorship operate

  • empower women by providing opportunities and training for skill development in all aspects of publishing

  • creatively interact with other educational and literacy programmes in producing or providing gender-sensitive material

  • resist the more blatant forms of censorship and threats to freedom of expression by the state or religious groups

The workshops were designed to enable writers to share experiences, thoughts and feelings in a friendly, informal environment. They were loosely structured, and featured no academic papers or formal presentations. The idea was to encourage participants to think and talk about their lives as women and as writers and, in the process, determine whether or not gender influences their experiences and perspectives and, consequently, their writing.

The primary purpose of these interactions is to collectively determine whether or not female creative writers in India face any form of censorship (direct or indirect) from any quarter: the state, the market, community leaders, society at large, families and/or, even, themselves (i.e., self-censorship). A second but equally important objective is to elicit writers' opinions on whether or not anything can and should be done about gender-based censorship, as well as their thoughts on possible cooperative efforts to counter obstacles to free expression by women.

Presented here are narrative reports of our 10 workshops, conducted between 1999-2001, culminating in a National Colloquium of writers from the 10 languages in Hyderabad in July 2001. The reports highlight the issues raised and discussed by approximately 175 women in the course of our workshops. An analysis of this fascinating exercise and experience-the first of its kind, we believe-will follow after the conclusion of the National Colloquium.

Core Team and Project Co-ordinators
June, 2001