Power of the Word I > next story

VI. Cases of Gender-Based Censorship

In addition to the forms of gender-based censorship described above, women writers experience traditional political censorship—but even then, their treatment is affected by their gender. To take an extreme example, a male and female writer may both be arrested and tortured but only the woman will normally be gang-raped or publicly branded as a prostitute. And, in fact, the types of censorship that afflict women do not come neatly packaged and separated. A woman's personal life is likely to be part of any smear campaign or indictment against her. And politically active women writers make tempting targets because of their presumed vulnerability, not to mention the perverse titillation that persecuting them seems to provide conservative men. Several years of analyzing cases of women writers have led us to the conclusion that women writers who become human rights cases tend to be heterodox in three distinct ways:

  • They remove themselves from the authoritarianism and protection of the patriarchal family. They may refuse to marry, be gay, marry too many times, marry someone from the wrong ethnic group or nationality, or simply decide they don't want to live with their parents or husband any more. In some cases, particularly in revolutionary countries, the "patriarchal family" may be the party, government, or national liberation movement.
  • They write about the oppression of women in a way that offends. Often they have too impassioned or militant a voice, a voice that men call "strident" or "too angry." They may give specific examples of oppressed women, naming those who have harmed them and calling the government to account. The more specific their examples, the more likely they are to get into trouble.
  • They move out of specially marked gender categories of discourse and trespass in areas considered outside of women's realm, meddling in subjects that men consider their own, like scriptural interpretation, law, communalism, corruption, national conflicts, or war and peace. They thus multiply their enemies and increase their vulnerability.

Even in cases that appear on the surface to be purely about state politics, gender considerations are often raised in the form of speculation about the writer's personal life, and her persecution is usually conducted partly through "trials by public opinion" in the press. There are many countries in which any outspoken feminist is immediately branded as a lesbian, and thus further stigmatized and endangered.

Censorship campaigns that draw on puritanical sentiments about female sexuality and notions of women's proper place threaten the freedom of all women. Such puritanism was certainly an element in the most visible case of gender-based censorship in recent years, that of Taslima Nasrin, the Bangladeshi writer who was attacked and threatened with death by political fundamentalists for her views on women and religion, and censored and denied her passport for months by a government embarrassed by her revelations about the persecution of its Hindu minority. Targeted by a long press campaign in which government, Islamists and the liberal opposition all united against her, Nasrin was eventually driven underground and forced into exile by a warrant for her arrest on charges of offending religious sensibilities.26 Nasrin's case is not unique, but the tip of an iceberg. The writers below were all censored because of their ideas about gender relations, their views on state politics, or both.

Marjorie Agosin, a Chilean born poet living in the United States and writing in both English and Spanish, wrote a book published in Chile on the folk singer and human rights activist Violeta Parra. It disappeared from the market two weeks after publication and appears to have been pulped by its publisher, despite the fact that orders had not been filled.

Svetlana Alexievitch of Belarus had her early books about the lives of women and children in World War II attacked as pacifist (a gender-related term in Communist vocabulary.) Her most recent book on the Afghan War, called Zinky Boys because Russian soldiers were sent home in zinc coffins, was prosecuted in the courts by former generals and the KGB, resulting in the exhaustion of her income by court costs and the confiscation of her research materials. Unintimidated, she is now writing on Chernobyl.

Judy Blume is one of many writers of children's books in the U.S. today whose works are being attacked by the religious right in massive campaigns to remove them from school curricula and public libraries. The Christian conservatives object to any children's book that treats non-traditional families, questions authority, or presents homosexuals as human beings. Other authors under attack include Maya Angelou, Annie Garden, Norma Klein, Betty Miles, Katherine Patterson, and Meredith Tax.

Lindsey Collen, a writer and activist in the trade union, squatters' and women's movements in Mauritius, who was threatened with rape and acid attacks following publication of her novel, The Rape of Sita, which was read as an attack on the Hindu goddess (who was abducted but not actually raped.) Sita is a common name in Mauritius and the novel was intended to show that women who are raped do not necessarily lose their "virtue." It was denounced and banned by the Prime Minister, who called for Collen's prosecution.

Maria Elena Cruz Varela, a prize-winning Cuban poet imprisoned for her criticism of the government's failure to tolerate democratic discussion, was visited in her apartment prior to her arrest by a "neighborhood committee." They dragged down the steps by her long hair, beat her, and forced her to literally eat her words (the paper was stuffed down her throat) on the street in front of her children. While she was not specifically attacked in gender terms, it is difficult to imagine a man being treated this way.

Rona Fields, an American social psychologist and expert on terrorism, has experienced both state and gender-based censorship. Her 1973 book on Northern Ireland was killed by its English publisher (Penguin) under pressure from the government and British military intelligence; her 1976 book on the Portuguese revolution was suppressed by her American publisher (Praeger) under CIA pressure; and her academic career was derailed by the fact that in 1972 she filed the first academic sexual harassment complaint, against Clark University. This complaint took years to go through the government's anti-discrimination procedure, during which time she was effectively blacklisted.

The "Five Croatian Witches" are five women writers—Slavenka Drakulic, Rada Ivekovic, Vesna Kesic, Jelena Lovric, and Dubravka Ugresic—who, because of their fame abroad and their insufficient nationalism, were subjected in 1993, after the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, to an intense campaign of personal and sexual vilification by government-sanctioned newspapers and writers' organizations, including threatening phone calls and the publication of one's unlisted phone number. Two of these writers have been forced into exile.

Bessie Head (1937-1986) was born in South Africa of a black father and a white mother (put in an insane asylum because of this love affair) and, as living evidence of the violation of a taboo, was brought up in a foster home. After becoming interested in politics, she was driven into exile in Botswana, where, despite her gifts, she was unable to make a living writing because of sexist and colonialist publishing conditions—her American publisher, for instance, gave her an advance of $60 on her first novel—and died in poverty at the age of forty-nine.

Merle Hodge, a novelist, activist, and professor at the University of Trinidad and Tobago, was singled out for an orchestrated campaign of personal attacks in the press and threatening phone calls because of her participation in a 1994 campaign against Export Processing Zones. One caller threatened to "make a Gene Miles out of her"—Gene Miles, a woman who exposed government corruption in the Sixties, became a social outcast as a result, ending her days as a penniless vagrant.

Aïcha Lemsine found that when she wrote novels criticizing the Algerian socialist government's family code and its treatment of women militants, her books were banned and she was ignored by the print or broadcast media; only after she wrote a general work about the condition of women in other Arab countries, and it won an important prize in France, was she allowed to publish and speak in Algeria. When the military's hold on the government tightened and the threat from Islamists grew more severe, she opposed both and called for democratic rights and negotiations; she was removed from her newspaper and radio shows, her husband was pushed out of his diplomatic post, and she, like many Algerian women, was forced into exile.

Fatima Mernissi, a Morocan sociologist, had her books Beyond the Veil and Islam and Democracy banned, making them unavailable to the women of her own country in either Arabic or French. Mernissi's treatment of theology, sexuality and democracy are unacceptable to conservatives, as is her call for a reinterpretation of Islamic texts vis-à-vis the position of women.

Irene Petropolous, editor of Amphi, the magazine of the Greek Lesbian and Gay Liberation Movement, was fined and sentenced to five months in prison for "publishing material indecent and offensive to public feeling," namely, an editorial notice requesting heterosexual men to stop writing letters requesting sex to the gay women who put notices in the Personals section of the paper.

Margaret Randall, a poet and essayist born in the United States, gave up her U.S. citizenship because she married a Mexican and needed to become a Mexican citizen to get a work permit. After many years of living in Latin America, where she edited an important literary magazine, wrote over forty books, and supported various liberation movements, Randall returned to the U.S., married a U.S. citizen, and in 1985 applied for permanent residency. The government attempted to deport her on the grounds of her political beliefs. The fact that she had children with a number of different men did not help.

Eliane Potiguara, a writer and organizer of indigenous women in the Amazon rain forest, who was subjected to threats of violence and a newspaper campaign branding her as a thief and prostitute because of her advocacy of Indian rights. The real issue was her organizing of women and the political exposures she wrote in Grumin, the newspaper of her women's organization, of latifundia and timber baron atrocities, including chemical pollution and paying their Indian laborers in rum.

Ninotchka Rosca, then a journalist, was jailed by the Marcos government in 1972, when it declared martial law, and characterized by the military as "not only a political but a sexual outlaw." After her release from prison, she was unable to publish anything unless the military first stamped it "approved by the government;" the one newspaper that allowed her to publish without the stamp was immediately closed. She was subjected to repeated death threats and obscene phone calls and had to go into exile to avoid being jailed a second time.

Nawaal el Saadawi, an Egyptian physician and writer, had her books censored as pornography because they contained medical information, such as that a girl can be born without a hymen or lose it by other means than sexual intercourse—such facts challenge traditional beliefs that oppress women. In 1981, she was imprisoned by the Sadat government because of her political views and, upon her release, founded the Arab Women's Solidarity Association (AWSA), despite opposition by the authorities, who denied its magazine, Noun, a license. In 1991, the government dissolved AWSA, confiscating its assets, and fundamentalist threats to her life forced Saadawi into exile.

Christa Wolf, the distinguished German writer who, alone of all the East Germans who reported to the Stasi in their youth, was singled out for a concerted press campaign led by West German men. Though the controversy was complex, whenever a woman is made a symbol of everything wrong in a society, one suspects patriarchal sentiments may be involved; when the woman is a feminist, internationally known for her writing, one suspects that envy and hatred of feminism are also involved and the intent may be to silence her.

In the United States, a conservative political climate and the mass media's tendencies towards seeing only one trend at a time have combined to make gender-based censorship an increasing problem for even well-established writers, if they have a controversial critique of their society or of the position of women. Andrea Dworkin and Shere Hite have moved from being highly commercial writers to being writers published by small or university presses, while Marilyn French, whose first novel was an international best seller, had her recent pathbreaking book, The War Against Women, reviewed in only five places.

The only way to fight gender-based censorship is to persevere in treating taboo subject matter, presenting critical points of view, and getting them published. Chinese women writers deserve special notice for their determination to write about sexuality and personal life, treating subjects like forced abortion, the one-child rule, prison camps, marital rape, and the traffic in women and children. Latin American writers have refused to let the crimes of the past be papered over by a reconciliation without justice, and have persisted in writing not only about the costs of dictatorship but about patriarchy as well, despite the fact that they are often branded as lesbians for doing so.

26 The Women Writers' Committee of International PEN was heavily involved in her defense. The difficulties in this case helped convinced many of us to form Women's WORLD.back