Tongue tied Women and Censorship


The Nehru Centre, London organised its debate of the month on 28 July 2004 on Women and Censorship in collaboration with Samvukta, Journal of Women Studies published from India. The participants included Ritu Menon, founder-member of Women World and one of the pioneers of women’s publishing in India; Judith Vidal-Hall, Editor, Index on Censorship and noted human rights activist; Beatrix Campbell, writer and journalist; and Nira Yuval-Davis, eminent academic, who has written extensively on women and fundamentalism. The debate was moderated by G.S. Jayasree, Editor of Samyukta who is also the Director of the Centre for Women’s Studies of the University of Kerala, India.

Pawan Varma, Director of Nehru Centre opened the meeting with words of welcome. In his address he emphasised the contemporary significance of the topic chosen. This was followed by a short presentation by G.S. Jayasree. She pointed out that women occupy limited social space when compared to men for a variety of reasons. The most important among them is the censoring of the voices of women – for reasons political, ideological and cultural. The liberation of women from the structures of patriarchy can be achieved only through an examination of how women are silenced and why they remain silent. She pointed out that the woman’s voice is always considered deviant and that censorship works both at the public and the private level, more specifically at the levels of politics, religion and sexuality to extract obedience. Beatrix Campbell who spoke next, carried this idea forward. She pointed out that society is structured around patriarchy and emphasised the need for women to remain vigilant to lay claim to spaces that are legitimately theirs.

Nira Yuval Davis who followed, spoke about the complex nature of censorship. Drawing on her experiences from a visit to Gujarat after the communal carnage, she made the point that censorship often has a violent edge and is directed towards women who are seen as sexualised objects. As Editor and Publisher, Ritu Menon who spoke next was concerned about the right to freedom of expression. She maintained that writing, to woman, was a subversive activity. According to her, censorship can be resisted effectively by exposing acts of censorship and mobilising public opinion against it. The first round of the debate came to end with a presentation by Judith Vidal-Hall. She placed the whole question of censorship against a wider frame and talked about how concepts regarding censorship have been radically transformed since 9/11. It is time now we call for a definition of free speech, a new vision for freedom. The presentation was followed by a very interesting round of questions, wherein the panelists clarified and re-inforced their earlier views. The discussion closed with concluding remarks by the moderator.

Pawan Varma: Good Evening Ladies and Gentlemen. The Nehru Centre has great pleasure in welcoming you to the debate of the month. It is called “Tongue Tied Women and Censorship”. We are very happy to have this discussion here because, I think, the Nehru Centre is a platform which welcomes this kind of discourse. I think, in an era where liberalism is more or less an assumed stance for most people there are issues like the one, which is to be debated today, and which needs to be discussed. I think that while we have argued the end of history in terms of ideological divides in the world I think there are subjects like this which are often not discussed as much as they should be and at least the Nehru Centre provides a platform where we discuss issues of equality, of equal opportunity, of freedom o expression, right to be heard. We are very happy that today we have a  distinguished panel of activists in this sphere here to discuss the question of women and censorship.

This evening the programme has been organised in collaboration with Samyukta. It is a journal which is published from Kerala. We have Jayasree here, who helped us to organise this event and when the idea ca to us we greatly welcomed it and in future also we would like to discuss subjects of this nature which often don’t get as much space as they should. I now hand over the proceedings to Jayasree. She’ll introduce the panelists and structure this evening programme. Thank you all once again for being here.

G S. Jayasree: This is a proud moment for me. I come from Kerala, which is at the southernmost tip of India, as the editor of a journal for Women’s Studies called Samyukta, a biannual which was published four years ago. When we started the journal we were not quite sure whether there would be a second number, but now we are onto the eighth number and slowly gaining recognition in the international field. I would say that this became possible because those of us who are behind Samyukta, a close group of friends, see ourselves not as individuals but as those standing for a certain cause, certain issues touching on the lives of women and it is indeed a great moment for me when The Nehru Centre has come forward to join hands in forwarding this cause and I must thank Pawan Varma, the Director and Divya Mathur, the programme officer for helping us organise this event. 

We have here a very distinguished panel to discuss this very particular issue of censorship against women. Beatrix Campbell, an untiring campaigner, fighter for civil liberties, Nira Yuval-Davis who is an academic of international standing. Ritu Menon who, I should say, walk with the times and make publishing history, and I must say that all the panelists here are committed to the promotion of free speech which is a core issue in the censorship matter. The audience who have come here on a busy weekday to discuss matters of censorship and the impact of censorship on the lives of women deserve special mention. 

Now, before we begin the discussion I would like to briefly spell out how we at Samyukta view the whole issue of censorship. There are three points that I would like to make and the first, to talk about censorship is to talk about our lives, our everyday experience in the running of the journal. The kind of censorship that we encounter, direct and indirect, when we read through submissions of women, and painfully realise the notions of honour and dignity that women have internalised and the kind of self-censorship they have imposed upon their lives. Direct when a hostile press demands that funds to Samyukta be blocked because we happened to publish an article against Hindutva. Direct when students shout slogans and burn Samyukta because we have published a story on lesbian experience. Now I say this because encountering censorship is something that we do day by day in the running of the journal. Now when I think back on it the question that comes to me is how do we deal with these incidents of censorship and that actually takes me to the second point that I would like to highlight. How do we deal with these issues as feminist academics. Now my definition of a feminist is one who realises the fact that there is gender discrimination in society, discrimination in terms of gender and takes an active part to contest this. Now this often calls for contestation with the forces, structures and the ideologies of power, the dominant forces in the establishment. 

We recognise that censorship comes down to silence deviance. It has always been like that; any deviance in society is not tolerated and it is censored. Now what can we do as feminists and academics is to examine how the whole set of binaries, normal vs. abnormal or acceptable vs unacceptable. This issue is sure to make clear the gendered nature of censorship, that’s the issue I would like to highlight this evening and how censorship ruthlessly silences voices and all kinds of voices that differ or disagree. This actually takes me to the third and last point that I would like to bring to you before we actually begin the discussion. We have learnt very often that it’s the woman’s self, her body and her mind that is at stake in acts of censorship. Knowledge of the institution and practices of censorship help us to deal with this process of censorship effectively. 

Experience has shown that censorship is the arm of power extended to control society. Though it is present everywhere it is possible to identify certain mechanisms and regimes of censorship. We have found in public life the institutionalised religion and church exercise the greatest control. Yes, organised religion and politics will never tolerate a word of defiance and further at the private level it is the community that acts as the agent of censorship. This we find manifest as the societal control or the indirect control which is exercised by the family and the self. I can say that this kind of censorship at the community level and family level, most often, touches upon the whole economy of sex, the sexuality of women which is. seen as a threat to the order of society, if left unchecked. Now I have made these general points based on my experiences in editing and publishing. I’m sure the panel would have more to add to it from their own perspective, vast experience that they have in contesting censorship. 

I would like to call upon Beatrix Campbell first to make her presentation on issues of censorship and its impact on the lives.

Beatrix Campbell: Thank you for the invitation, to the description and this lovely place. 

I was thinking about the context of our experience of the contemporary Women’s Liberation Movement and the way it transformed, how we analyse ourselves, speak what can be spoken and what remains unsayable. To start with, I suppose an obvious point that’s an inescapable one. All of these ideas that we know in this planet are structured according to the law of patriarchy. They are structured according to a dynamics between men and women that is organised around oppression, subordination and domination so that the question almost doesn’t need an answer. Of course it does because that becomes extremely interesting as how women mutiny against commandment or they try to remain silent or that what they say will be intensely regulated because, of course, it’s a universal system. It is also a very unstable system and all of us in this hall are testimony to historic time because we are typical of historic time which is characterised by historic resistance of order of patriarchy. The important thing is that it is not the end of the system but we are much more confident and clear about how the system works. 

The first thing we become clear about was the universality, the ubiquity of this system and its roots apparently in the body, of course, very successfully lent itself to the notion that it was a natural order of things and that women were somehow a kind of evolutionary failure and now that at times, we would detour our way towards completion in some sense as humans. That completion would arrive when we could enter the public world and be like men, but none the less, this was an assumption that prevailed when the women’s reservation that women would enter the wage labour market on the same terms as men. We would enter the public representation on the same terms as men and that we would be good grown ups, we would be like men and of course what we demonstrated was that it wasn’t our project at all. 

I want to suggest that in all of those arenas it was assumed as unproblematic, that these were arenas in which women would give voice, be clear, make their arguments, make their case effectively. Now one of the things that all live with, is actually what we can say, whether we can speak is absolutely contingent on the structures in which first of all we find ourselves as women, are organised as women, organised as humans and that contingency has all sorts of weapons mobilised to regulate and control what women might say if they manage to speak at all and all of that drama is rooted in the place that we all live in, the body. So we have to start the discussion about censorship. It seems to me how the body survives and under the difficult condition it can make itself heard because of the obvious point to make, I say obvious because it took a huge struggle for us to discover that the body of the woman is simultaneously a site of desire, fear, loathing, scrutiny and surveillance. So the means by which this body speaks for itself, tells a story both about how it lives in the social world and how it survives in its inner world within its very skin and what we have learnt is hugely difficult and dramatic. So that’s the first thing, whatever we speak and are ever conditioned in which we speak is always contingent and all that drama of power and subordination is the means of speaking in terms of our collective self, and collective interests are of course contingent again and the means of organisation and what we have to never forget is that in the modern era, in the modern western democracies men stole the means of organisation. 

There’s a marvelous book about that history in Britain called Eve and the New Jerusalem, It is the story of how the means of organisation for the workers, the old guild system before the trade union system emerged in the 1800s which was the prototype of the modern labour organisation was the site of a huge contest between the men and women over the access to the new industrial world, the new manufacturing world, the new economic world, also a cause to the incipiently democratic world and basically women were defeated, by organised men. One of the prime difficulties women have had in this society and has similar characteristics everywhere although obviously in very different forms is how to gain access to the means of collective organisation, how to escape from this organisation which is the condition of being able to publicly give voice about the interesting way in which women have organised, created for themselves the means of organisation. They are also characteristically informal and rooted in what became the mantra of modern woman’s liberation movement where the personal is political and the political is personal and the reason for that, of course, is the imperative to organise, the imperative to resist and to become something else. ,men Overwhelmed like a person existing in a condition of subordination it required a form of organisation that enabled women to recover from their historic silence to recover from the experience of humiliation and shame. To find a  voice some people, a few like us were struggling to sort something out without necessarily knowing what it might be and that culture consciousness generated the women a new way of being able to speak. They survived the censoring, often mocking, ridiculing, structures in the public world outside. Soon as that happened, what did we learn, that something powerful, important was going on precisely in the terrain of language and speakableness. 

What we learnt first was that we weren’t contemptible even if we felt deeply ashamed. One of the grey secrets of the female condition is how difficult, painful and shameful that condition historically has been and of course it would be, because there is no pride in oppression, there is no nobility in oppression. As we all know, it is a condition of shame and what we also learnt in that new uncensored intimate, small, cellular context of ten woman’s liberation movement, what the body itself had to endure, that women lived in bodies sometimes they couldn’t bear and sometimes they ended in unbearable walls of the body. I’m going to concentrate on this for a second because I think it provides a really important set of clues that help us understand the question of how censorship works. What we discovered from this great seizure of the means of organisation and what it did to our capacity to act publicly. It taught us first of all that the language itself has been seised Id, and often the women found themselves speaking in a foreign language and the arrival of the body speaking this language in any public space was the ad self carrying history, a completely complicated history very often.

And in this context of pain and the survival of pain I think that we learn the difficulty of the very interesting thing, self-censorship and speaking. Let me give an example. The Women’s Liberation Movement created, which is now a network that exists in every city in this country and indeed the model has been copied in many countries around the world. We have refuges for women, who are being battered and beaten at home by the person who is supposed to look after them and have no place to run to. What we learnt about the experience was, it had a historic silence about it and furthermore women who are at one level extremely vigilant because their survival depended upon their ability to read every blink of an eye, every shrug, every sound, every gesture in the household in which they lived. They had to read that in order to know whether their lives were at the moment at stake and that story never was spoken until the Women’s Liberation Movement created the conditions in which privately women could begin to disclose that to each other and then do something about it, create spaces for escape and recovery simultaneously. 

What else did we learn when we set up great crises lines was that the dread of sexual assault was almost universal amongst women, not that every woman endured it but it was our imaginative horizon to say it is something to be expected and that a woman survives the experience of rape again having to navigate the experience of shame and very often the dreadful assault on her being is the source of silence because it is surrounded in shame, So we learn very important lessons of the relationships between speaking, censorship and shame. Another good example of the kind of thing that I’m talking about here is the experience in Ireland. The government has set up a National Commission of Enquiry into the abuse of children in the public institutions. That story didn’t get told for decades, actually for a couple of centuries, didn’t get told and was simultaneously not told, simultaneously heard and not heard, simultaneously known and not known and very typically the survivors were violence and sexual abuse within very often religious institutions of child care. It was not speakable and so the society itself have no sense of the ubiquity of something that was in its body. 

Typically those stories only got told once people became adults and, left those institutions. These are stories, which have now become global stories because rape is a weapon of war, sexual abuse is a weapon of war and is an instrument of national subordination. The excesses of the forms of attack on the body which guarantee that woman cannot find her voice and the condition of her finding that voice is first of all, she has means of organisation with people like herself in which she can acquire the critical mask that enables her voice to be heard in the public institutions. Thank you very much for listening.

G S. Jayasree: Thank you very much Beatrice. That was a very interesting way of highlighting the role of Women’s Liberation Movement in recovering women’s bodies and voices. 

Nira Yuvai-Davis: What I would like to say about is in some ways a continuation, a thickening of what we had started to talk about. Most of what I want to talk about relates to my experience as a member of the International delegation to Gujarat. I’ll tell you about that in a minute but before that the Women’s Liberation Movement in Britain. I couldn’t but remember an occasion shortly after I arrived in Britain and not too long after I became a feminist. There was a Women’s Liberation Movement meeting I think, in London in which Juliet Mitchell, the eminent feminist got up and Said ‘Isn’t it revolutionary to demand equal status with men’. Suddenly there was this mass collective sigh of relief from thousands of women sitting there. We all, of course, had our reactionary dreams constructed by the worst patriarchal strips in which we were constructed and conditioned and, of course, there was censorship in the women’s movement because everything had to be politically correct and we are not allowed to feel or to admit all these emotions, all these desires that we still had. So the story I think is important because censorship exists wherever power exists, where it is the power that we ourselves try to promote as well as the power that we try to fight against and things are much more complicated and contradictory that we would like often to assume issues not just of oppressionality but of emotions, conscious and unconscious. 

When I was invited here today to speak about women and censorship I immediately remembered the stories we were told of village women who were raped in Gujarat. This was an international delegation which it was, some of us international feminist activists. Some Indian activists were supported also by a variety of wonderful Indian feminists and civil liberties people both from Gujarat and the rest of India. A collective report called `Threatened Existence: A Feminist Analysis of the Genocide in Gujarat’ was published last year and those of you who haven’t seen it yet, I really recommend that you see it. We were asked not so much to find out the effect of what happened because there have been so many wonderful tribunals from within India, but we were asked to come because the Indian government at that time would not allow any formal international body to come and enquire about it even organisations like the Amnesty International or the UN. It was important that there would be this kind of exposure against that self-censorship. So in a way the holocaust was in the name of anti-censorship struggle and were asked to look at the arena that was relatively neglected by the other tribunals for the gender and sexualised effects of the violence in Gujarat. 

We came just after the elections in the state but before and after the results were announced. The violence was not just the result of the previous year but the violence would continue to happen and some of the time we were divided into smaller places in Gujarat. I remember we talked to a group (of course interpreted) of the village women raped during the riots and one of the terrible thing that we found, that rather than feeling ashamed or hiding their identity, rapists continued to taunt and use these acts of rape as a way of subduing the Muslim minorities in the villages. Moreover, the wives of these rapists used this taunting as ways in getting these women away from the wealth in the villages and so on. We found that very often these women would not actually tell their husbands that the taunting and violence continued to happen and one of the reasons they did not tell was that they were afraid that these men would go out to fight against the rapists to save the honour of these women. Of course this would mean another bloodshed and even the power relations in the village they are going to lose. But the other reason why they did not tell was because they were ashamed. The shame of the rape was not on the rapists but on the women who we raped and very often we know that they would not even tell their husband or when they were girls. We know there was high rate of marriage among young girls in the displacement camps. After the riots both the girls were raped or there were chance that maybe somebody would think that they were raped and then they would not be marriageable. The whole issue of censorship and the silence about this rape is because of the whole structure of patriarchy, power relations, construction of honour and shame while the victim is the one who internalised, the shame and fear, besides there is no pride of being the victim. 

So of course, one of the tasks that need to be done is to tell the stories of the hidden shame. It will become a sect of life in which judgments can be switched from the victim to the aggressor. If the story is not told this is not possible. So this is very important but because I’ve just few minutes to speak I just want to give a warning that sometimes by just telling the story, we think this knowledge is victory. 

I’m part of those that after ‘67 war in Israel objected, resisted the occupation of the Palestine and also will just expose what is happening to the Palestinians. If we will fight against censorship, both self-censorship and formal censorship and expose the dirty linen in the world, then things will be better. But what happened instead, it became so – called normalised. It always happened. It happens everywhere; this is human nature; this happens historically, this is happening now and therefore like Oscar Wilde said about hypocrisy I think censorship sometimes is a homage, just telling the story without contextualising it within political struggle looking at strategies in relation to the power of knowledge. Just the knowledge in itself is not enough when we talk about women and censorship. Just exposure is the first step but definitely not the whole of the way. 

G. S. Jayasree: That is looking into the complex nature of censorship, the fearful censorship by the state and the kind of painful censorship that women impose on their own selves. I’m sure Ritu Menon would have more to say on this matter. 

Ritu Menon: I’m going to speak about writers and I’m going to try and speak about writing as a subversive activity because I’m a publisher and deal with words. Both Nira and Beatrix have talked about breaking the silence. I’m going to expand that a little bit with specific reference to India and just want to begin with a quotation from one of our extremely well known writers, Navnita Dev Sen and she writes in Bengali and in English but her creative writing is in Bengali and she said ‘Free speech belongs to the mainstream; if you are on the margins or if yours is the voice of dissent your speech is censored”. It is this business of being on the margin and the mainstream that I think needs to be explained a little bit and what I’m going to speak about now is based on a work that a group of us have been, doing as part of an International free speech network called `Women’s World’. he world standing for world organisation for rights, literature and development and it is an international network that came into being with the death threat on the Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen. We know that she continues to live 10 or 12 years later in exile in Europe. Two things are extremely significant about (a) death threat to Taslima and (b) mobilising that took place both in her defence as well as against her at the time and I’m beginning with her because in a very curious way India was her first refuge. 

The very first organised resistance to her death threat came from the rationalist society of India that objects to any form of religious fundamentalism. But the second defence that came about for her was from the international PEN which as every one knows is Poets, Essayists and Novelists. It was the women’s committee of the international PEN that actually organised her escape from Bangladesh and continues to this day to be responsible for her in many ways, for her survival and from this women writers committee grew this International free speech network of women writers, which then enquired into what exactly the gendered nature of censorship can be which Jayasree mentioned in the beginning. 

In December 2003 the Indian government, not the central government but the state government of West Bengal, banned Taslima Nasreen’s second volume of her autobiography. This is something that completely unexpected and uncalled for in the first place because in fact there were no grounds for banning it, that the left parties ruled progressive state of West Bengal should have done it was even reprehensible. But the curious thing about the ban is that it operates across the country even though it is not a ban imposed by the government of India. It operates across the country because no single translation of her book can be published because the original is banned. Now there was no resistance to this ban. The extraordinary thing of the ban on Taslima Nasreen’s autobiography is that there was no public protest because a kind of consensus operated among the literati that she had overstepped the bounds, that there was something she had said that was unsayable, that she should not have said it. This unwritten consensus operates much more insidiously than we think and so although hers is a dramatic case it actually conceals a great deal that goes on under the surface unknowingly. It is internalised because it is naturalised.

So the first thing I would like to say is to be uncensored imply not simply the individual right to free speech but the individual right to mobility  and freedom of association. These three rights are inseparable though we often don’t see the last two in conjunction with each other. Freedom of expression cannot actually take place without freedom of mobility and freedom of association and I mentioned the last two because I do want to take the second example from Gujarat, which is what Nira spoke about. In the course of working with about 200 women writers in India over the last three years on issues on censorship and these 200 writers from about ten languages across the country, one of the issues that we discussed was how does an individual writer under threat make for any kind of security? Does she have any means of resisting the kinds of censorship that she experiences, although Jayasree mentioned the four critical areas — social, cultural, familial, and political. Most writers operate in isolation. 

There isn’t a way by which easy solidarity or easy mobilising and organising on their behalf is possible. I’m delighted that there are two writers here Jayashree Mishra and Manisha who were part of the project over the last two or three years. One of the things that emerged was networks of solidarity are essential because when I speak later in the second round it will become clear that there is no other way of resisting the formal as well as informal censorship. So out of the discussion that took place with writers from Gujarat grew a network, a local network called Kalam, which means pen that is to write. In other words to take the pen and write your destiny is a profoundly subversive act in patriarchal society. So this group came together and met and started a newsletter that actually communicated within Gujarat, within writers on what was happening in their state. Along comes February 2002 and the carnage and the group split. There is no way by which members of the group will extend solidarity across community boundaries. Now the lesson that we learnt from that was precisely as Nira said before. Exposing is the first step, but the next step which is resistance and mobilising simply requires another order of understanding of self, of understanding of identity, what it takes to coming together on issues that are gendered, that cut across class, community, race and religion. Is it possible for us to overcome those internal censorships that operate and those expose which are very much a part of our everyday experience? This group Kalam never came together. They were never able to discuss within the group what had happened to the Muslim women in Gujarath state. They were not able to discuss it as women and they were not able to discuss it as writers. Now part of what this group wanted to do was rehabilitation work, post massacres_ It was never possible and to this day it has not been possible for them to do it. But I will speak about that in the next round. Thank you. 

G. S. Jayasree: Drawing on her experience as editor and publisher, Ritu has emphasised the importance of freedom of expression, association. and mobilisation. Let me call upon Judith Vidal Flail to present her point of view. 

Judith Vidal-Hall: I’ve the impression that everybody else has the best minds as what the actress sense. I do think their experience is so much more direct and personal and up from mine. I simply edit a magazine on censorship. I want to speak about the jury speaking the freedom of expression. It is the phrase we are hearing about a lot this night. 

The freedom of expression as stated in the article 19 of the UN Charter of Human Rights is not simply the right to speak and to give information. It is also essentially the right to be heard. It is the right to receive that information. So this is no great wisdom but there is very much a sense in which we are all censored when we are deprived of a single voice as for instance Taslima Nasreen. She was censored too so are we. I want you to bear in mind that the gender in censorship and the way in which it is operating today and the way in which censorship has been radically transformed by the 9/11 war on terror and war on Iraq and how women are hugely in frontline of that war. Censorship is a strange business; it doesn’t stay the same as T.S. Eliot said about language itself it shifts, it slips, it slides, it will not stay in place”. 

One of the disturbing things is, in the old days of the cold war whatever the business of censorship was very clear. We didn’t do it here and it was fashionable to be anti-censorship. To act in solidarity with all those writers who were censored back in Soviet Union and the Communist world was very easy; it wasn’t the fact how we posed it and how it seemed. What is much more shocking today is that this slippery thing called censorship has taken up residence not with the freedom’s oldest enemies the dictators, the tyrants, those who fear it, fear free expression. We were invited, to become joint hosts of that censorship and the dreadful thing is that the censorship is now presented as something for the very best possible reasons, that is to say you must give me your freedom in exchange for security. 

Now you know, it was 200 years ago that Benjamin Franklin said `Those who would give up a little essential liberty for a little temporary security deserve neither liberty nor security’. I think that is more possible, more relevant today than since when he said it. I’m not going to jump to Iraq because I will begin with Iraq and end with Iraq. I’m going to end with the shocking pictures of Abu Gharib prison that recently appeared in the media. What do they have to do with women, maybe not very much, maybe not a great deal, The explosion of these pictures into the US and rapidly around the world was not the result of superior technology you know, digital camera etc. They got into the media as a result of somebody who said I’ve looked at this and even I cannot live with this, somebody much involved in the fear but cannot live with it. So the visibler the opposite of censor supplied the pictures and incidentally opened up a much bigger story than just the fact that Americans were infringing the Geneva Conventions which turned out to be right. What it did was reveal just the tip of a great iceberg, part of the continuum of the poor and degrading treatment forbidden by the Geneva Conventions. Stretching all the way from Afghanistan which you all forgot about and we have proof of that and didn’t have blamed the media for that but we know that it happened. I’m beginning to find out a little more about that all the way to Iraq. 

The major change with which government of Saddam would surround themselves at times of war was on the terms of national security and the like. But what does this have to do with censorship or women? Well, not again really except I want to talk about women and war as I said an interesting thing about the prison pictures was women were out there with the men, smiling, happy with the treatment. It appears not to have a lot to do with women except that you may say in some ways, it was a huge advance because here the women are upfront, equal with the torturers. I’ll flip now to an anecdote on all that I have on free speech and women’s silent voices. You see there is always an ambiguity in women’s position different from anything else. The group Kalam fell apart because they could not work together, there were divisions.  Here’s another story about women involved. This is the real story of women involved up to and including World War 11, The ratio of casualities involved was 80% military and 20% civilians. In the latter half of the 20th century this is reversed so that we have a position now with smart bombs indoor, 80% of war casualities are civilians and minus twenty are men and the majority of those victims are women and children. Whether the US liberating Afghanistan and Iraq or the civil wars that blight so much in the world today you only have to look at the pictures. You only have to look at the recent photos of Saddain to see that the people who are driven out of the dark world are 80-90% women and children. We don’t have to be killed to be victim, it’s worse than that. You maybe widowed and left with no recourse, you may lose your home to a smart bomb, you may be brutalised and abused by marauding armies and it happens so quickly, early and so random, Saddam shows us that this is true. You get to the safety of a camp and immediately become undefended, prey to disease, malnutrition and rape by those central to protect you. It is women who are at the frontline of today’s modern warfare on both sides so who says the story, well there are voices. Women I see are the collateral damage of every government and faction who goes to war. They can be sacrificed because nobody would tell their story. You may call it suppression of information by journalists. I don’t call it censorship. 

G S. Jayasree: Judith has emphasised how life has never been the same since 9/11. Before we go on to the second round, let me quickly sum up the points that were projected. There are two important points that were being made about the definition of censorship. Censorship was defined as the act of control, control both at the personal and the political level and secondly how do we contest this kind of censorship and this could be done by a three point formula — by exposing, by mobilising and resisting the acts of dominance and this in aid of free speech. I’m sure the panelists would have more to contribute and the second round is a more open round, panelists are free to present their opinions. 


Ritu Menon: There’s just a point we need to keep in mind which is today when there is actually speaking no possibility of really censoring a text. We have electronic media and forms of transmission that transcend the normal modes and medium of dissemination. What we are looking at is choosing, censoring the text and censoring the author. Now we might think these to be the same, but they are not, because death threat seeks to eliminate the author of the text whereas censoring or banning might simply seek to erase the text. So the difference between censoring the author, eliminating the text and eliminating the author of the text whether it is print or film or visual art or theatrical is actually a new distinction that we have to deal with. The second is that I really don’t think that we have to fear formal censorship. What we have to fear is informal censorship. It is actually not the state that worries us certainly not in India; it is the street, it is the mob that has worried them. It is elusive because it forms and dissolves; there is no target. When the state censored, you can have Amnesty International and XYZ take it up; you can have citisen’s tribunal, you can go to court, you can have Human Rights Commission, but when you have street censorship, when you have censorship by the mob it is very much more difficult to mobilise, to resist it or even to find regresses for that kind of censorship. Rather a collusive arrangement between the state and the street because the state which is supposed to defend individual liberties and fundamental guarantees of freedom of speech, mobility and association actually withholds that protection when it allows the street censor to operate. It is the simultaneous absence and presence of the state that we really have to think about and I think all the recent examples that we had certainly in India, it is clear that the state and the street can actually proxy for each other because there is no such thing as the spontaneous mob when it comes to violence. This we know not only with political violence but also with the cultural violence and there are examples in hundreds. 

Two essential differences between the ban on Rushdie’s Satanic Verses in India and the recent ban on Taslima Nasreen’s autobiography — the ban on Rushdie’s Satanic Verses was a ban by the central government of India. The ban on Taslima Nasreen was the ban by the state government of West Bengal which actually used one particular section of the Indian Penal Code under which the ban was imposed. That section of the IPC says that in anticipation of intercommunity – violence this particular book is withdrawn from circulation. However in court it was established later that there was no question of intercommunity violence, the Hindus couldn’t care less what Taslima Nasreen is saying. There might have been intercommunity ill feeling within the Muslim community but that doesn’t call for the section 153 of the Indian Penal Code. The real reason for suppressing Taslima Nasreen’ autobiography was the pressure that was put on the West Bengal government by the Anantha Bazaar Patrika group because they have a huge circulation in West Bengal. Talsima Nasreen’s autobiography second volume, lists the sexual harassment that she had at the hands of the Bangladeshi media. That’s the difference between Rushdie and Nasreen and that’s what makes it gendered because Rushdie was never accused of sexual harassment either as a perpetrator or as a victim. 

Beatrix: I feel passionately that the discussion of values is relatively void. We heard a lot being talked about the body, as the vessel in which women is being shut in the course of discrimination. It is the only ground on which we can have Human Rights Commission for Women. 

Ritu Menon: Bengal Government has always maintained that it is secular and democratic; that’s why I was surprised. The Indian government also maintains that it is secular and democratic. The government at the centre was a right wing government at that time; West Bengal was not, and isn’t. Of course there is a politics to all this. Let us not assume censorship comes minus politics. There is an ideological baggage that attends all forms of censorship and certainly West Bengal has always prided itself on communal harmony. Questions on community violence in this case simply didn’t arise. Then you have to look for other reasons and the second reason is that the central government never banned Taslima Nasreen’s first book because of the friendly relations with Bangladesh didn’t enter the picture. 

Judith: It is not issues of politics but issues of economics and sexuality which concern censorship. The fact that media growth, a private corporation, has a lot of readership in Bangladesh. So what we are talking about is inter-relationship of politics to new liberal globalisation and the market in terms of censorship. I think this is a very good example of how everything had to be looked at in a contextualised way. 

Ritu Menon: I agree with you. Gopa is here who translated Taslima Nasreen’s autobiography which we published, volume one, and I can tell you it was far more inflammatory than anything in volume two and it was passed by the West Bengal Govt. They should have banned volume one if they were concerned about intercommunity violence. They never did. Actually Gopa and I censored Taslima in volume one. As a feminist press we censored and she went public on it. She gave interview after interview saying that even feminists have silenced her; so it didn’t take the government to do it. What I am saying is that West Bengal didn’t do it for volume one, there is nothing in volume two that merits it except exposure of media men. The real fear is volume three which speaks of media men in Calcutta, it is what I call pre-empted censorship. 

Beatrix: I think you raised a very interesting question there. In a sense there remain a paradox that they exist as political spokespeople. There are career politicians and I think the real problem with the first World War is about being able to display and parade these men as respectable heterosexual married men so that it is important as part of the baggage of these men, part of their portfolio and the price they pay is of course historically to have been seen and not heard and now these women insist on the right to be heard quite rightly.

There’s another wrinkle in the contradiction which is that they are to be speaking persons in their own right and autonomous. I wish to ask what are they doing being on parade on behalf of their husbands. So the curious thing is that these women are carving up political space not with other women but with powerful men. This is the crazy patriarchal phenomena. They themselves will have to make the decision. Are they going to be proxy, proxies for their husbands and speaking or political personas with narrow minds that somebody like Hilary Clinton emerges out of the shadow of Bill. Mind you, now we all know in the most glorious detail, this is someone who has never been able to fully escape from awe of the extraordinarily eminent and eloquent man to find her own voice. What do you think is the measure of something that is happening within the patriarchal, something that is not resolved? 

Judith: Cherie Blair, she has a silence that is more vocal than any of that we have. In a way we have to see this in the context of two wider social phenomena. On the one hand the sex, it is always, has been the role of the wife to be helpmate of her husband and there is a whole of a range of not just politician’s wives, diplomat’s wives, soldier’s wives etc. Their job description is part of the male job description as it used to be there of priest’s wife. There is a slow but full resistance to transformation of the definitions of the role. This is part of the patriarchal existence or marriage institution, public institution, public space. The other one is something that is in there — South Asia is much more successful than the United States that the women get political power as a result of their family. We have more women Prime Ministers than the others, I think_ Basically this is the same issue about carving political power as a result of reflection but at the same time feeling uneasy about it, try and establish some kind of independent world. In South Asia very often it happened after the death of the husband or father. Historically it happens in India. 

G.S. Jayasree: That is true. But we have to note that much depends on the effective use of political power. Issues of censorship, particularly with reference to women have no simple solutions. Political power alone is not going to solve the problems. Women have to empower themselves in more ways, for instance economically and socially, so that she can effectively challenge the systems that work to silence her voice. She has to take conscious steps towards this end so that she can speak out loud and clear, so that she no longer remains tongue tied. 

The participants: 

Judith Vidal-Hall, Editor of Index on Censorship, one of the world’s leading repositories of original. challenging, controversial and intelligent writing on free expression issues. A brilliant orator and a champion of human rights, Judith Vidal-Hall’s voice is listened to with respect the world over. 

Ritu Menon, publisher, writer, independent scholar and activist. She has been in trade and academic publishing for more than twenty-five years and, in 1984, co-founded Kali for Women, India’s first and oldest feminist press. Menon is active in the women’s and women’s studies movements in India and South Asia, working collaboratively with many individuals and organisations in the region on a wide range of issues – media, conflict and peace. 

Nira Yuval-Davis, Professor of Gender & Ethnic Studies at the University of Greenwich, London and Visiting Professor at the Department of Cultural Studies at  the University of East London. Professor Yuval-Davis has written extensively on of Theoretical and empirical aspects of women, nationalism, racism, fundamentalism and citisenship in Europe. Israel and elsewhere. She is the author or co-author of ten books, including Gender and Nation, which has been translated into six languages. 

Beatrix Campbell, Visiting Professor of Women’s Studies, University of Newcastle, Centre for Gender And Women’s Studies. She has been a journalist, both in print and broadcasting, for many years_ She has contributed to a wide range of titles and her award-winning books and documentaries include Wigan Pier Revisited, Listen to the Children, a documentary about the watershed Nottingham child abuse case; and Diana, Princess of Wales: how sexual politics shook the monarchy, the first feminist analysis of the role Diana played. 

GS. Jayasree, Editor of Samyukta. She teaches at the Institute of English, University of Kerala, and is the Director of the Centre for Women’s Studies of the University. She has done considerable work on the two areas of women’s sexuality d feminist historiography. Her publications include The Concept of Tradition in Twentieth Century British Poetry: A Marxist Analysis, and numerous research articles. 

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