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

DAY ELEVEN: Witches of Scotland : A campaign to right the historic wrongs done to women

The Witches of Scotland Campaign aims to win pardons, memorials and apologies for the women who died in witch trials in Scotland between the 16th and 18th century.

Picture above: Witches Gestalt names, credits: andrewtcrummy, source: Creative Commons.

Claire Mitchell QC and Zoe Venditozzi 

The Witches of Scotland Campaign was set up in 2020 to highlight the terrible miscarriage of justice that was suffered by people, mostly women, between the 16th and 18th century that were accused convicted and executed as witches in Scotland. It seeks to obtain a pardon, an apology and a public memorial to commemorate all those in Scotland who were convicted or accused as witches.

Scottish lawyer Claire Mitchell QC set up the campaign. She is an advocate who specialises in appeals against miscarriages of justices. She knew that there had never been any attempt to address the wrongful convictions of women as witches.  As a result she decided to campaign for a pardon for these women, to highlight the wrongs done to them and to make clear that an allegation of witchcraft as a tool of persecution was wrong then and is wrong now.  She believes these women and men deserve justice. 

Much of the record keeping, especially in the earlier centuries, was very poor but from what is available it is thought that the people who were accused of witchcraft 84% were women.

The “satanic panic” that spread through Europe in at this time used the allegation of witchcraft as a tool of persecution against women.  Academics believe that the in Scotland approximately 5 times as many as the European average number of executions took place and it is estimated that of approximately 4000 allegations of witchcraft, 2500 people were executed as witches. 

“5. Witches Gates by Tom Ewing”, credits: andrewtcrummy. Source: Creative Commons.

The Witchcraft Act 1563 came into force in Scotland when Mary, Queen of Scots was still alive, but it was her son, James VI of Scotland (and later James the first of England) who legitimised the idea that witches lived amongst us. So obsessed was he with the idea that witches and demons were real and that they preyed on men and women that in 1599 he wrote the book “Daemonologie” which was a study of magic, sorcery and witchcraft. The ruling classes, the church and the common people all believed that the devil walked amongst us and corrupted those who were not godly enough. The reason why women were more likely to be witches than men is because that it was thought that women were “weaker” and more likely to succumb to the devil’s charms. It seems that the view that women were more likely to be witches than men was a universal one.

Unfortunately, it took very little and sometimes nothing at all to be accused of being a witch.

Allegations could be made up, or a woman could fall out with a neighbour and if the neighbour or her family or animals became unwell the suspicion would fall apon the woman as having cursed her enemy. After an allegation was made the woman would be interrogated. In Scotland the preferred method of getting confessions was to keep the woman awake and use sleep deprivation until she “confessed.”

Unfortunately, many so-called confessions were obtained this way. It was not enough, however, to confess to being a witch – what was also required was that you gave up the names of the women who were part of the witches group too. This meant that if you knew someone who was accused as a witch you would fear being called a witch too. If you confessed then under the Witchcraft Act 1563 the punishment was execution. This was done by first strangling the women and then burning her body to get rid of any trace of her, so the devil did not bring her back to get revenge. 

In some countries, they have apologised, pardoned and build memorials for those wrongly accused and convicted of witchcraft. Those that were convicted in the most famous witch trials, those held in Salem, Massachusetts, in the USA were all pardoned and there is a public memorial in the form of a garden where each of the 19 killed (15 women and 4 men) are remembered with their own bench-seat. In Norway there is a memorial in Finnmark to those women killed in one of the biggest witch trials in Scandinavia. 

Unfortunately, gender-based violence is not a thing of the past, and women are still wrongly being accused of witchcraft in some parts of the world (See Mayur Suresh’s blogpost from last year on Witch-hunting in East India). Women and children continue to suffer harm through witchcraft allegations. It is hoped that in carrying out this campaign it also sheds light on the use of allegations of witchcraft as a tool of persecution in the modern day against women and children.  

Author Zoe Venditozzi and Claire Mitchell QC host a weekly podcast which can be found on the website where the allegations of witchcraft and the reasons behind the allegations are discussed as well as updates on the campaign.

DAY NINE: Unmasking the Issues of Cows, Women, and Safety in India.

Today’s post focuses on the creative provocation -The Cow Mask Project- which highlights that, in India, women are seemingly less safe and less protected than cows.

Picture above: “The holy Cow personified as World Mother”, Wellcome Collection. Reproduced by permission.

Anisha Palat

Imagine taking a walk to an iconic landmark of India. Perhaps you are in Kolkata, staring at Howrah Bridge. Or you’re strolling past India Gate in New Delhi. Maybe you’re at the ghats of Varanasi, wistfully staring at the Ganges River. Suddenly, a man walks past you holding what looks like a black and white spotted mask. You look closer- is it an animal? Perhaps a cow? A woman accompanies him. She dons the mask (you now realise it is indeed a cow!) and poses in front of the landmark. He takes a picture. End scene.

What I have described above is a simple overview of India artist-activist Sujatro Ghosh’s Cow Mask project (2017-present). The essence of this project is an exploration of the safety of women in India.

“Do women need to be cows in order to feel safe in this country?”

Sujatra Ghosh, artist-activist of the Cow Mask project
PIcture above: Collage taken from Sujatra Ghosh’s website on ‘The Cow Mask Project’ (

The artist is making a bold statement in the land of the Holy Cow: in India, women seem less safe and less protected than cows. Sujatro’s concept is rooted in an extremely simple yet powerful aesthetic, where a cow mask donned by a woman provides a layer of protection to the said woman; the woman is safer now, on account of having a cow’s face, than she will ever be in India.

Cow protectionism in India is, without a doubt, at the forefront of the nation. Reports of lynching and violence in the name of this innocuous animal are a daily feature in the news. An official government body, the Rashtriya Kamdhenu Aayog, also exists, cementing the cow’s status as being the most revered, respected and protected amongst living animals in India. The bull does not afford the same kind of respect and status that the cow does.

The roots of this nationalism and protection for the cow lies in late 19th and early 20th century calendar art images. The figure of the cow in these early images was characteristic of Kamadhenu or the divine cow and Gaumata or the mother cow; these were spread through India to help underscore the message of cow protectionism (see featured image). These images cemented the cow as symbolic of the nation itself, highlighted by the presence of 84 gods within the body of the cow: a Hindu rashtra (a Hindu country), a space that literally embodied the Hindu ideologies of the time. The cow became representative of a spatial phenomenon in terms of her material body. The protection of the cow then lay in protecting India as a space, the motherland, and the cow, all intertwined yet separated in a complex web of identity, pride and nationalism.

An important distinction to make at this point would be that cow protection lies in protecting the cow from those that are not Hindu (Muslims) and those that are lower-caste (like Dalits). Upper-caste Hindus are of the opinion that these communities are polluted for they deal with the dead cow in terms of meat and leather work. Therefore, the lynching that takes place in the name of the cow is primarily against men from these communities, and largely the perpetrators of this violence are also men.

So how do women come into the picture if cow protectionism is not typically against them? As mentioned earlier, the cow in India has been established as Gaumata and Kamadhenu, especially through the spread of calendar art images.

These representations are female tropes of motherhood, goddesses and divinity, thereby placing the cow above the realm of human. This placement, while seemingly positive, has actually enabled negativity for women and cultivated a culture where mother cow as goddess divine should be protected by men for men of the nation, but at the same time, mother, wife, sister and daughter do not deserve the same kind of reverence (and in turn protection).

Video: ‘Holy Cow’, A documentary about ‘The Cow Mask Project’ by Al Jazeera (Trailer)

As Sujatro Ghosh points out through his photographs, the only way a woman can potentially be safer is by wearing a cow mask. The materiality of the mask, interestingly the face of a Jersey cow (which is foreign) and not the native so-called holy cow, provides protection to the female population. The hybrid creature that emerges in Sujatro’s photograph, standing with her masked head held high in recognisable spaces in India, speaks of a way of the cow and woman coming together to represent the women of India as a strong voice against horrific crimes against the female.

The Jersey cow mask stands out for its associations with the ‘foreign’: is protection for the woman in India an unknown, strange phenomenon? Will it never be a part and parcel of our society?

The cow and its entrenchment in holiness and motherhood is demonstrative of the gendered trope of the cow and her protection by the men of India. This article has just presented an overview of the cow image and the strength of its iconography. Scope lies in detailing these ideas along with examining aspects of the male gaze and the cow as well as the cow in relation to caste-specific gender crimes.

What is important to take away is that while women in no way need to be protected by men, if the same kind of respect and reverence given to the cow is extended to women, India might become a nation with fewer gender-based violent crimes. The coming together of cow and woman might illustrate a coming together of animal and human, as well as nation and individual. Currently masked as a single hybrid, cow and women appear safer together like in Sujatro’s photographs. In the future, will the possibility of unmasking cow as woman and woman as cow offer solace or spread more fear? Or will the cow forever remain the single most important being protected and fought for in India?

Anisha Palat is a second year PhD History of Art student at the Edinburgh College of Art, University of Edinburgh. Her research focuses on the cow image in Indian visual culture. She is exploring the visual vocabulary pertaining to the cow’s history as a symbol of mainstream cultural nationalism and looking at ways to decentre the current hegemonic and casteist links that the cow has come to represent. Anisha previously completed her Masters in Art Business from Sotheby’s Institute of Art, London. She has researched the South Asian gallery sector as well as art and philanthropy in India for Art Tactic, London. She was also an art consultant and writer for Ashvita’s, an Indian online auction and gallery platform.

You can find Anisha on Twitter and Instagram through her handle, @anishapalat

Sujatro Ghosh is an Indian photographer artist-activist and feminist scholar from Calcutta, currently  based in Berlin. Sujatro works on women’s rights, LGBTQI issues and environmental concerns. Website: Instagram: @sujatroghosh