May Issue 2007

By | Arts & Culture | Books | Published 17 years ago

The web of censorships has haunted this nation since the day it was born. The government, religious extremists, sundry political parties have all tried, at various intervals, to control, curtail and manipulate public opinion and dissent. But there is another age-old form of censorship that has been endemic in our society and, indeed, across South Asia for centuries: gender-based censorship. Silent, insidious and deep-rooted, it is sanctioned by social structures.

Recently, five of us from Pakistan — Feryal Ali-Gauhar, Zubeida Mustafa, Fahmida Riaz, Kamila Shamsie and I were invited to “The Power of the Word: South Asian Women Writer’s Colloquium” in New Delhi, organised by Women’s WORLD, an international organisation concerned with gender-based censorship. The Indian chapter is headed by Ritu Menon of Women Unlimited, the co-founder of India’s first feminist publisher, Kali. She was the moving spirit behind the three-day conference, which included a spellbinding public address at the India International Centre by Gloria Steinem, icon of the feminist revolution.

At 72, Gloria Steimen combines a quiet, impressive presence with an informal manner. She was very much at home in Delhi, having been an exchange student in the 1950s at Miranda House, the women’s college. Her voice is mellow and measured; her words are incisive, insightful and witty. She pointed out that “changing consciousness was the first step to activism” and described social pressures and inhibitions imposed upon women, as censorship.

Steinem spoke of the different ways that literary output is controlled: in the United States there is total absence of poetry and fiction in women’s magazines because advertisers want publications to support their products. They will not advertise in those featuring “depressing” features, stories or poems. She said that modern US women’s magazines “look like catalogues,” giving the impression “that this what other women want.” She said the neglect of oral traditions was a form of censorship as there was once a “huge flood” of oral literature that has “turned out to be more accurate than the written word” in describing women’s lives. She remarked that talent was censored too, because there were not enough translators to enable women to reach out to wider audiences. She added, “We have also censored women as workers by referring to them as housewives — as women who don’t work.”

The Bangladeshi writer and anaesthesiologist Taslima Nasrin expressed a universal truth when she said that when women write in defiance of patriarchy, they are often asked, “What is your problem?” She said she had just wanted to write the truth, but this offended right-wing extremists and she had to leave Bangladesh. She spoke with passion about the difficulties of exile. She had felt “an outsider” living in the West and moved to India to be able to enjoy her language and culture, but it is still not her homeland. “I have no home,” she said.

women-writers-2-may07Filmmaker and novelist Feryal Ali-Gauhar said she had “lived under siege as a woman and a writer” since childhood. She had been abducted and recovered at three and at 17 and incarcerated during the WAF protests in Lahore. She also spoke of her search for identity as a Muslim woman beyond Pakistan’s geographic borders. Her new novel is a protest against the war in Afghanistan.

Manjushree Thapa, the Nepalese English novelist, journalist and human rights activist, spoke about the complexities of writing in the midst of political flux. “We are trying to move from monarchy to democracy and settle an insurgency,” she said. (In 2005 King Gyanendra had assumed absolute powers ostensibly to fight Maoist rebels, but protests against state oppression compelled him to restore parliament). Manjushree described the harsh measures employed by the monarchy to quell dissent. She was in Delhi and could shirk censors.

In Nepal, newspapers ran seemingly innocuous editorials with absurdist themes, metaphors and symbols to defy censorship. She said that her book Forget Kathmandu: An Elegy for Democracy provided an alternative view of Nepal and its history to the perceptions of the monarchist regime, but Nepal is still engaged in discussions on what form its democracy will take. She said, “It is important to step back and remember that we are in the thick of a revolution and that there will be a counter-revolutionary effort. The challenge is that every word is political.” She also spoke of a strong women’s movement and of an underground feminist group which uses witty, humorous writings to raise issues.

The conference was conducted in English, but included writers of many different languages; some belonged to minority groups too. Indian delegates included Hindi poet Gagan Gill, Urdu novelist Jeelani Bano, Tamil playwright A. Mangal, Malayalam poet Anita Thampi as well as writers of Bengali, English, Kannada, Marathi and Telegu.

The Indian English journalist, poet and short story writer Mamang Dai from the north-eastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh said that her community was very egalitarian and there was little gender bias, but problems arose “when you try to change customs in a tribal state, such as those governing mixed marriages.” Her newspaper column had to be withdrawn and journalists “are often threatened or beaten up” in the region. The Telugu writer Chandra Latha spoke about displacement and how differently it is reflected in the writings of men and women.

The Gujarati writer Saroop Dhruv said that she had learned the language of protest early, but had been branded “anti-Gujarati” because she raised her voice against Brahminic domination. The 2002 Gujarat riots were a very great shock to her. She has not been able to write since, although she had done extensive inter-communal relief work.

The Gujarat riots were also a watershed for the artist and Indian English novelist Esther David. She belongs to an Indian Jewish family from Ahmedabad. There, she had stayed in her ancestral home till she discovered she was in a minority in her neighbourhood. People who lived around her “were trained to kill Muslims,” while “Muslims were being pushed into ghettos.” She was told not to write and was threatened because her opinion did not conform with those of her extremist neighbours. After a really frightening experience, when she hid a Muslim friend and a mob came and banged at her door, she decided to move out.

women-writers-3-may07The Sri Lankan publisher and writer Ameena Hussein said Sri Lanka’s tiny Muslim community has suffered constant discrimination. Caught in a crossfire between the Singhalese and Tamils, the Muslims “have become more Muslim and more isolated” by adopting fundamentalism. Ameena finds herself caught in a trap: if she criticizes her community she is accused of betrayal. At the same time, she is afraid of having her opinions manipulated by those already critical of Muslims. “To be a Muslim writer today can be a dangerous thing,” she said.

Self-censorship was discussed extensively by several writers, including myself, Ameena Hussein, the Indian English poet Temsula Ao from Shillong and Bangladeshi English writers Neeman Sobhan and Shabnam Nadiya. As women we are so conditioned by society, that as writers we are often beset by the worry “What will people say? What will my family think?” Some revealed that they had two lives as writers: one public and published, the other, secret and unpublished. Novelist Shabnam Nadiya reflected, “What is it that I fear? Being recognised? Family looking over my shoulder? These are things that I can put my finger on. But what about a silence so deep that it is binding? Censorship is not about books. Its true aim is to leave us lingering in the dark.”

Neeman Sobhan, poet, journalist and short story writer said, “My mother tongue is poetry, but prose is my professional language. I love poetry for its ability to reveal as much as it conceals.” Poetry “became an intimate coded language” for her since she was a teenager. Recently, her son helped her sort out her poems for publication, but she “shied away” because they were too personal.

I spoke about mothers and daughters, the changing face of Pakistani women in the Pakistani press and my long struggle to find a voice. I had grown up between two countries, Britain and Pakistan. For years, I felt I belonged to neither. There were few outlets for women journalists in Pakistan for decades. Who was I to write for? And where?

The domination of English was discussed extensively. The Bengali writer Nabeneeta Dev Sen criticised the pressures of international publishing and marketing that have led to the diaspora of Indian English writers being regarded as the authentic voice of India, while excellent work in vernacular languages languishes in comparative obscurity.

Kamila Shamsie spoke of the intricacies of global publishing. She paid glowing tributes to Mai Ghoussub, the Lebanese-born founder of Saqi Books in London, who had suddenly died. Mai had established Saqi “to publish books that weren’t being published” by mainstream British publishers. She found “a gap” for Middle Eastern and other books in a fiercely competitive market and made Saqi financially viable. Her publications included Kahani: Short Stories by Pakistan Women (edited by Aamer Hussein) and Galpa: Short Stories by Women from Bangladesh edited by Firdous Azeem and Niaz Zaman

The Bangladeshi critic and publisher Niaz Zaman spoke very warmly about Mai Ghoussub and of her readiness to have Galpa reprinted in Dhaka, because the British price was too high for Bangladesh. Niaz Zaman lamented that few Bangladeshi women writers are known internationally, although their writing is very good, because their work does not meet the demands of the western market. The Hindi novelist Geetanjali Shree remarked that “the process of creativity is not defined by the market,” although the “market lets itself be known.”

The Indian English poet and linguist Rukimini Bhaiya Nair said gender-based linguistic exclusions are common to all cultures. She posed the question, “Is writing a censoring mechanism?” because women “can talk stirring a pot, but to write you must be alone, and it’s totally exclusionary.” She explained that “in the oral tradition, women’s language is very rich, but it is ironed out in writing” to exclude idiomatic curses and swear words. Bama, who wrote the first autobiography by a Dalit woman in Tamil literary history (now translated into English), spoke of the difficulties of translating a particular idiom, such as hers, which employs coarse language.

Several women writers have broken taboos but continue to face censure. Anoma Rajakaruna, the Sinhala poet, had faced a barrage of criticism since childhood because she wrote on subjects considered improper. Fahmida Riaz, Pakistan’s first feminist poet, said her writing has been grossly misunderstood and confused with her personal life. She wrote Urdu poems in the female gender, which had traditionally been written in the male. And her new book celebrating Rumi is but a continuation of themes that were always present in her work. She also spoke of her research into Balochistan’s oral traditions and folk poetry to establish the intellectual capacity of women across the ages. She has separated verses such a lullabies and wedding songs, which could not have been composed by men, and she has discovered a 10th century poet, Rabiya Khuzdar, whose poetry still survives.