DAY FIFTEEN: Speaking for ourselves: the PEN international women’s manifesto

Today’s post examines the impact of the PEN International Women’s Manifesto in the struggle for women to speak and write freely without censorship or violence.

Image above: PEN International President Jennifer Clement, First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon (holding Women’s Manifesto), Publishing Director and manifesto advisor Ellah Wakatama Allfrey OBE, and PEN International board member Margie Orford

Margie Orford

 No advanced step taken by women has been so bitterly contested as that of speaking in public. For nothing which they have attempted, not even to secure the suffrage, have they been so abused, condemned and antagonised.’

Susan B. Anthony, American civil rights campaigner, 1900. 

In 2016 as the PEN International Women’s Manifesto to protect freedom of speech and of creative expression for women writers, poets, and journalists was being collectively drafted, those words rang chillingly true. That was the year when Donald Trump, riding a right-wing, anti-feminist wave, swept to power in the United States. Four years later Trump is on his way out but the global political stage is crowded  with so-called strongmen – Putin in Russia, Erdogan in Turkey, Bolsinaro in Brazil, Orban in Hungary, Modi in India – who centralise power around themselves. This power, patriarchal in nature, is premised on the lethal binaries of  race,  religion and, above all, gender and has resulted in attacks on and the curtailment of women’s freedoms in both the domestic and the public sphere. This is most visible on the internet, where many of us conduct parts of if not most of our public and professional lives, where the attacks on the free and authoritative speech of women are frequent and vicious and often have lethal effects in women’s off-line lives. These are attempts to silence women, to expel them from the public sphere – the realm of free speech, politics, decision and authority that is gendered as masculine, and to sequester women in the domestic or private sphere, which is gendered as feminine. As Jennifer Clement, President of PEN International – the first woman to hold that position, writes,

In drafting the PEN International Women’s Manifesto, we needed to acknowledge  women’s inequality in the world and how the violence against women was also a censorship issue. It needed to have a humanist position, which addressed that lack of knowledge or, more to the point, missing knowledge. We don’t even know what the world has lost.

Jennifer Clement, President PEN International

The particular remit of PEN International is literature so let us turn to literature to understand how old and how lethal this prohibition is on women’s free speech: to The Odyssey by Homer. Mary Beard, in her astute analysis of women and power, brought to our attention the scene where Penelope, the faithful weaving wife of the wandering Odysseus, comes down from her private quarters to the public part of her own home. There she addresses her adolescent son, Telemachus, and the suitors and adult warriors. Telemachus, both threatened and threatening, tells his mother that because she is a woman she has no right to speak. That she has no right to what he calls muthos, the ancient Greek word that means ‘public speech’. He orders her to return to the woman’s quarters and she obeys. Why?

Put yourself in Penelope’s place. To speak publicly is to speak with authority. To claim an authority that has been, and in many quarters still is, fiercely defended as a masculine domain and she  is in a room filled with armed men. In front of her is a son whose very authority, whose ‘honour’, whose masculinity depends on his ability to silence a woman. To expel her from the public sphere, to defend  with violence if necessary, that as a domain for men only. It is – a dangerous moment and Penelope, wise and politically astute, falls silent. Censured –  a woman speaking in public of turn. Censored – a woman who is ‘spoken for’, not a woman with a right to speak for herself. Hers is the silence of half of history, half of humanity. What would she have said? How different might literature and history have been if she had spoken and written? How can we end this deathly silence?

Activism, like art, is an act of imagination. 

So let us return to that scene of Homer’s and to the confrontation between Penelope and Telemachus. Let’s imagine that when Telemachus ordered Penelope back to her quarters, when he denied her the right to muthos– public speech – that she refused to go. Let’s imagine that Penelope insisted on speaking and that when she spoke she was not alone. Let’s imagine that the wiser, more confident men had intervened. Let’s imagine they said:

Telemachus, be silent. Listen to the words of this woman. This space of public speech is one that is to be shared. She is wise and will have good counsel for she has experienced the pointless slaughter of the Trojan wars too. Listen to her.

Shifting the social balance of gender, power and speech is at the heart of what the Women’s Manifesto addresses – opening up ways of imagining and working for a different future, an equal future.

The PEN International Women’s Manifesto

PEN International Women’s Manifesto. Reproduced with permission

The first and founding principle of the PEN Charter asserts that ‘literature knows no frontiers’. These frontiers were traditionally thought of as borders between countries and peoples. For many women in the world – and for almost all women until relatively recently – the first, and the last and perhaps the most powerful frontier was the door of the house she lived in: her parents’ or her husband’s home.

For women to have free speech, the right to read, the right to write, they need to have the right to roam physically, socially and intellectually. There are few social systems that do not regard with hostility a woman who walks by herself.

PEN believes that violence against women, in all its many forms, both within the walls of a home or in the public sphere, creates dangerous forms of censorship. Across the globe, culture, religion and tradition are repeatedly valued above human rights and are used as arguments to encourage or defend harm against women and girls.

PEN International Women’s Manifesto. Reproduced with permission

PEN believes that the act of silencing a person is to deny their existence. It is a kind of death. Humanity is both wanting and bereft without the full and free expression of women’s creativity and knowledge. As Salil Tripathi, chair of PEN’s Writer’s in Prison Committee, writes:

Women who defend human rights, women who speak in public, and women who engage in controversial debates have been subjected to insults by latter-day Telemachuses all the time. Some have been vilified, like Priyamvada Gopal in the UK when they speak on race and colonialism, some have been attacked for campaigning to have a British currency note with the image of a woman, like Caroline Criado Perez, some have seen their morphed images spread on the Internet, like Rana Ayyub in India, some have been insulted by heads of state, like Maria Ressa in the Philippines. Some, like Nasreen Soutedeh in Iran, remain in jail, some, like Asli Erdogan in Turkey, face prosecution, and some, like Svetlana Aleksiyevich in Belarus, are questioned by those with power because they speak truth to those with power. And then some, like Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta and Gauri Lankesh in India have been murdered. 

Amnesty International has shown, through detailed research, how mobs on the Internet seek to silence women who engage in the public sphere. Recognising the Women’s Manifesto is but the starting point in understanding the restraints being placed on women. It is incumbent on all those who care for free expression to make sure that their voices are not silenced; that their access is not withdrawn; that they are not shouted down; and to do that, the world needs to read more women, and listen more to women, and on all issues, not only about issues that the patriarchy decides as ‘women’s issues. 

Salil Tripathi, chair of PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee

The Women’s Manifesto endorses the internationally recognised human rights principles: non-violence, safety, education, equality, access, parity. This provides the frame for action and activism, has been widely used for PEN’s advocacy for the rights of imprisoned women writers and has, as Jennifer Clement says, been widely taken up.

Within months of the Women’s Manifesto passing by unanimity at the PEN congress in Lviv, Ukraine, many organisations asked if they could sign on as supporters.  These included United Nations Women, the International Publishers Association (IPA), Ana Ida Gannon Centre for Women and Leadership at Loyola University, VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, Moomin Characters Ltd, as well as several literary festivals.  At present, UNESCO has taken the manifesto as the heart of its global work on gender with pilot programmes, which include PEN VIDA UNESCO Counts, in several countries in South America. 

Jennifer Clement, President PEN International

In addition, prominent women endorsed the document such as First minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon, Her Royal Highness Princess Nandi of the Zulu Royal House. Noma Dumezweni, Sofi Oksanen and Dareen Tatour, who says of the Women’s Manifesto: 

This document is about me.  It represents me as a woman, as a human being.  It represents the pain that I feel as part of the women’s community… It summarizes in a real way the things I have faced

Dareen Tatour, Palestinian poet, photographer and social media activist

The Women’s Manifesto has been crucial for a number of PEN’s cases. Here are some that you, as readers, can become involved in:

Take action for Sedigeh Vasmaghi

Take Action for Chimengül Awut

Take Action for Paola Ugaz

Iran: Temporary release of Nasrin Sotoudeh welcomed while calls for her unconditional release continue

and the long term case of Narges Mohammadi released recently.

PEN has advocated for Tsitsi Dangarembga, shortlisted for this year’s Booker prize, who is currently facing trial in Zimbabwe, and has campaigned successfully with many African PEN centres for the justice for the Ugandan writer, Dr Stella Nyanzi

Video above: Ugandan academic activist and poet Dr Stella Nyanzi. Source: Youtube.

The Manifesto is used by PEN Centres all over the world for advocacy but it is also used for the creating new ways of thinking about writing as Nadia Davids, President of PEN South Africa, where the Women’s Manifesto is widely used writes, 

I used the manifesto for a suite of third year English lectures at the University of Cape Town and it always prompts a really generative conversation among the students- allowing them to carefully consider the relationship between freedom, creativity, the ownership of the self, our inalienable rights over our own bodies and how that may connect to creating a body of work… We read the Manifesto in relation to two other texts: Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and Alice Walkers response to Woolf, In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens and this invites us to consider the relationship between the psychic and the physical, and how the right to roam uninterrupted allows for the mind to wonder and make.  

Nadia Davids, President of PEN South Africa

Dr Margie Orford is an independent scholar and the author of the internationally acclaimed Clare Hart novels, a literary crime series focused on gendered violence that has been widely translated and is currently being developed as a television series. A Civitella Ranieri fellow and a Fulbright scholar, Dr Orford is an honorary fellow at St Hugh’s College, Oxford and Community Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at University of Edinburgh. She was the patron of Rape Crisis in South Africa, president of PEN South Africa, a member of the executive board of PEN International and is a co-author of the PEN International Women’s Manifesto.

You can follow her on twitter @MargieOrford