Women’s WORLD: A Transnational Network of Women Writers

Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism


The Targeting of Feminist Writers


          Women’s WORLD (an acronym for Women’s World Organization for Rights, Literature and Development) is a feminist global free speech network, formed in response to changes in the world situation that have made the lives of women writers increasingly problematic.  We began as a committee inside International PEN, and some of us remain active there; by 1994, however, we had come to feel that another kind of organization was needed to develop a feminist analysis of censorship and concentrate on defending women writers. (1) We also wanted to work with feminist writers and editors in the Global South, few of whom had anything to do with PEN.   As we became more truly transnational, our analysis deepened.  Writers from Africa, Asia and Latin America made it clear that cases of flagrant public persecution of women writers were but the tip of the iceberg and that, if we really wanted to fight censorship, we had to combine defense work with much broader consciousness-raising, access and empowerment programs.  The Beijing process offered us an umbrella under which we could hold our first meetings and produce our first publication (2), and, at our first international conference on gender-based censorship in 1996 (3), we laid out the following goals:

  • to build a worldwide mutual aid network of women writers in order to break down  isolation and defend those under attack
  • to develop autonomous feminist institutions including presses, distribution networks, writers’ centers, and institutes, as a basis for women’s  independent political thought  
  • to fight the silencing of women through research, action, and public education

 The stories of a few censored writers may illuminate the ways that the silencing of women is becoming internationalized, and show the kind of support a network like ours can give.  

            Taslima Nasrin is a Bangladeshi poet, novelist and newspaper columnist, perhaps as famous for her persecution as for her work. In 1993-4, she was attacked and threatened with death by political fundamentalists for her views on women and religion; at the same time, her book Lajja was censored and she was denied a passport for months by a government embarrassed by her revelations about the persecution of its Hindu minority.  As the situation escalated, and the government issued a warrant for her arrest on charges of “offending religious sensibilities,” Nasrin was eventually driven underground to avoid prison.  Along with her lawyers, International PEN and other human rights groups, various Northern states, and the global feminist network, we (4) helped her get out of Bangladesh.  Women’s WORLD has remained in touch with Nasrin through her subsequent adventures, including a visit home when her mother was dying that led to further death threats; and Kali for Women, co-directed by Women’s WORLD founding member Ritu Menon, will publish her memoirs in India.
            Svetlana Alexievich is a journalist and oral historian in Belarus, one of the few openly Stalinist states that still exist.  She got into trouble when she did a series of newspaper interviews with soldiers during the Afghani War, revealing what was really going on. (5) Since perestroika had begun, the government couldn’t simply throw her in prison; instead, in 1993, she was prosecuted for defamation in three separate show trials by the army and the KGB.   The court costs exhausted her income and the judge confiscated her tapes, preventing her from writing a second book on the war.  We became involved during this period and nominated her for a Dashiell Hammett-Lillian Hellman award, a cash prize given by Human Rights Watch to censored writers.  Unintimidated, Alexievich used the prize money to begin an oral history of the Chernobyl disaster, an even more dangerous subject. In 1995, after two years interviewing in the contaminated zone, she became critically ill with viral meningitis and her friends faxed me an emergency appeal to get her out of Belarus.   Only with great difficulty (6) could we find resources to help get her to Cyprus for medical care.  We subsequently found other resources that enabled her to obtain computer equipment.  Best of all, the publicity we gave her work helped her obtain the prestigious Swedish Tucholsky prize, which supported her while she finished her book.  Chernobyl Prayer has since been translated into many languages and won a major Russian award. 
            In June, 1997, Patricia McFadden, a cutting-edge African feminist born in Swaziland and living in exile in Zimbabwe, was told she had two weeks to get out of the country.  Her deportation order was the result of a dispute within the women’s movement over control of a women’s studies center she had helped start; a well-connected woman on the other side of the dispute had gone to the government for help.  In the months that followed, McFadden was targeted as an extremist,  a foreigner, and someone who had spoken in defense of gay rights.  No one in the Zimbabwe women’s movement came to her defense.  Eventually, through the efforts of the director of the SAPES Trust, her former employer, the government was persuaded to rescind its deportation decree.  Women’s WORLD played only a minor part in this drama, giving McFadden moral support and nominating her for a Hammett-Hellman award; this brought her some good publicity in Harare and named what was happening to her as censorship.   
            Even such minor support can be important, however; when someone is isolated by the women’s movement in her own country, transnational solidarity can make a great difference to her morale. Nasrin was similarly isolated from the Bangladeshi women’s movement, though she was supported by local human rights groups. (7) These are variations on the theme raised by Amrita Basu’s observation that transnational help is most effective on issues where the problem can be framed in terms of defending women’s civil and political rights against a hostile government (Basu, 2000, p. 81). 
            In any country, the experience of being censored is disorienting to a writer. One is frightened by the sudden, unexpected mobilization of powerful forces that want to damage her and shut her up. (8) Often the writer feels she must have done something wrong.  The simple act of an outside “authority” naming what is happening as censorship can help a writer make sense of what may seem a bewildering sequence of unrelated events.  By now Women’s WORLD has worked on enough censorship cases to be able to offer tactical advice as well as moral support; we also can mobilize our network in cases where such a mobilization would be useful, and connect people with other human rights organizations that have resources we lack.  
Human rights, women’s rights, and  censorship
            Most anti-censorship organizations start with categories set up by the law and state politics; a typical definition of censorship is “the silencing of writers by jailers, government officials, or assassins.” (Dowd, 1995, p. 319)  Women’s WORLD begins with the concrete conditions of women’s lives, so we have a much broader definition of censorship: “any means by which ideas and works of art that express views not in accord with the dominant ideology are prevented from reaching their intended audience.” (Tax et al. 1995, p. 20)  Gender-based censorship occurs in relation to work that expresses untraditional or unacceptable views about gender and the position of women. Most of the time, though not always, the writers who produce such work are women. It is seldom necessary to call in the state or backlash movements to censor women, however, because of the many informal silencing mechanisms embedded in schools, religious institutions, parents, husbands, political movements, publishing houses, organs of literary criticism, and even writers themselves, who internalize all these pressures and respond with self-censorship. 
            Through local projects, Women’s WORLD is now working on culturally specific analyses of the ways gender-based censorship operates in various countries. Our analytical work is most advanced in India and Latin America, where the strength of the women’s movement provides a strong context. In Latin American, members of the network have started local groups which are linked regionally through RELAT (Red De Escritoras Latinoamericanas), based in Peru and modeled on the kind of regional consciousness-raising networks that have had such success on issues of reproductive rights and violence against women.(9)  In India, we are engaged in an enormous Women and Censorship research project with Asmita, a feminist nonprofit in Hyderabad.  This project is just concluding a two year series of research workshops held in ten different Indian languages, whose findings will be augmented by in-depth interviews and survey data, and summed up in a national colloquium to be held in July, 2001(10). We are planning to replicate the Women and Censorship research design in Peru, Russia and the United States, in order to get cross-cultural data.
            Clearly any research we do in the US will have to center on class, race, and language variables as well as gender.  But even among the most privileged sector of US women writers, some traditional patterns persist.  The big literary prizes still generally go to men; a tendency to treat much literature by women as being of a different, lower order persists; so does the habit of discussing controversial books by women in terms of their morals, if not their physical appearance. And the corporate ideology and organizational weaknesses of the US women’s movement (11) mean that left-wing feminist writers are often isolated or cast adrift.  But all these factors pale next to two other developments: the overwhelming commercialization and concentration of the publishing industry, and the culture war waged by conservatives against the ideas of the Sixties.  
            In the last fifteen years,  the US publishing industry has been transformed from a relatively broad and diverse environment marked by many independent medium-sized presses, to an industry in which most publishing resources are in the hands of three multinational media conglomerates, which are entirely ruled by commercial values and the culture of celebrity. In this transformed industry, literary or socially-conscious authors are marginal, at best, and small presses find it difficult to compete with the corporate giants.  An additional problem, for feminist writers at least, is the culture war waged for the last twenty years by right wing ideologues, funded by foundations and churches with enormous access to money and the media. In the name of saving the young, conservative groups attack feminist books for children and try to remove sex education from the public school system; they also attack women’s studies, gay studies, affirmative action and sex education programs at the community college and university level.     
            The same conservative lobby has pressed for cuts in federal spending on social services, including education.  This means that the poor are increasingly denied the education necessary to gain access to the written word, the media, and a public voice.  This economic censorship is so routine it is not even noticed.  In the years of debate that have taken place about welfare in the USA, for instance, almost no one who actually receives welfare has become recognized as a spokeswoman; women on welfare are routinely represented by others, and this is so normal no one even remarks upon their lack of voice. Women’s WORLD’s first US project was an attempt to address this problem through a writing workshop for women on welfare, but lack of funding compelled us to discontinue the program after two years, despite its success in empowering its members.  Economic censorship, which functions by denying access to quality education, combined with a public information system entirely controlled by commercial interests, effectively silences the poor.

Women’s WORLD structure and global programs
             Women’s WORLD has two kinds of programs: international programs, which have been until now coordinated through our NY office; and local programs, which take a variety of culturally specific forms determined by the people carrying them out.  In addition to defense work, our international programs include media and publications, international networking, and a series of regional conferences which will lead up to an international conference on gender based censorship in 2003.  Our country-based work is done in partnership with local groups who design their own programs. The main role of the New York office has been to keep up communications, facilitate links between groups and with donors, and give practical advice and technical assistance upon request.  
            In 1999-2000, in addition to the Women and Censorship project in India, RELAT in Peru, and the welfare writing workshop in New York, Women’s WORLD partnership programs included: 1) The second international conference of women writers organized in Rosario, Argentina, in August, 2000, by WW board member Angelica Gorodischer; 2) Mbaasem, a new organization set up by WW founding member, Ama Ata Aidoo, to develop a residency program for women writers in Ghana; 3) a three country (Albania, Kosovo, Italy) oral history project to preserve the culture and voices of Albanian women in a time of war and immigration, coordinated by the Centro di Documentazione delle Donne in Bologna under the supervision of WW board member Luisa Passerini; 4) a conference of Russian language women writers from the C.I.S.,  held in spring, 2000 under the auspices of the Association of Russian Women Journalists, organized by WW vice-chair Nadezhda Azhgikhina; 5) an anthology, The Power of the Word II: Women Writers and the New European Order,published simultaneously in Moscow and New York, with a Serbo-Croatian edition to come; 6) the April, 2000, founding conference of the South African Women’s Press Initiative (SAWPI), whose object is to start a progressive women’s press and resource center in Capetown; and 7) a women writers’ workshop  for members of Femrite, a publishing collective in Kampala, Uganda, taught by Ama Ata Aidoo. 
          It has taken us some time to figure out the right relationship between such local projects, our international board, and the New York office.  When we began, we knew we wanted a fluid, non-hierarchical structure, but we did not know whether we were going to be mainly a loose international network of individual writers, a nonprofit raising money in the North for projects in the South, or an association of women writers’ groups.  As we have matured, we have moved toward the latter definition, and, at a recent board retreat, decided we can only work in places where local partner groups are strong enough to raise their own funds, so we can function on an equal basis.  In this way we hope to avoid the trap identified by Amrita Basu, in which Northern funding of Southern feminist groups “has impeded the open-ended two-way flow of ideas that has been so critical to the development of feminism.” (Basu 2000, p. 82.) 
         From the outset, we wanted to have an organization that was not only globally governed but transnational in its politics and style of work, rather than one whose values and style were determined by the fact that its office was in the United States.Partly because of this principle, and partly because we haven’t had much money, our US office is very small. Through most of our existence, I have been the only fulltime staff person. This approach has cost us in some ways— we have not been to carry on essential outreach activities and our US program has been neglected because of the pressures of transnational growth.  But because we have put most of our energy and resources into building programs outside the US, our network has expanded rapidly and our identity has become firmly transnational rather than North American.
            By 2000, however, we had gone as far as we could do with such a small staff and I was approaching burnout. Most of the experts I asked for advice seemed to have the same essentially corporate organizational model: since the money was coming from the US, they said, we needed a large enough US office and staff to supervise and coordinate the work of what they essentially saw as branch offices. We clearly need a larger base in the US, but we want to avoid the kind of centralization that would inevitably concentrate the bulk of our resources and decision-making in North America.  Instead we are trying to develop a more   differentiated form of organization and an international division of labor that will allow our New York office to concentrate on developing a US program, and in which the fundraising and administration that has been based in the New York office will be shared with two new offices, in New Delhi and Lima.  Though this may sound foolishly idealist, in an age of globalization and electronic communications, it has got to be possible to find a democratic, non-hierarchical way of doing transnational coordination.   As the French students said in 1968, “All power to the imagination!”
1. Present at the founding meeting were Ama Ata Aidoo (Ghana), Marjorie Agosin (Chile/U.S.), Lucy Friedman (U.S.), Paula Giddings (U.S.), Aïcha Lemsine (Algeria), Ritu Menon (India), Ninotchka Rosca (Philippines), Mariella Sala (Peru), and me.  Grace Paley agreed to be the first Chair of our Board of Directors.  Our current officers and board are Mariella Sala (Peru), Chair;  Meredith Tax (US), President; Nadia Azhgikhina (Russia), Vice-Chair; Joan Ross Frankson (Jamaica), Secretary; Paula Giddings (US), Treasurer; and Members of the Board Ama Ata Aidoo (Ghana), Kristin Booth Glen (US), Angelica Gorodischer (Argentina), Ritu Menon (India),  Micere Githae Mugo (Kenya), Grace Paley (US), and Luisa Passerini and Annamaria Tagliavini, acting as alternates (Italy).
2. In 1995, Women’s WORLD got an initial grant from the Ford Foundation, to bring a delegation to the Beijing Conference and publish a pamphlet, The Power of the Word: Culture, Censorship and Voice.   This analysis was the first effort to apply the language of human rights to the silencing of women, naming it gender-based censorship, and situating it in a post-Cold War global context.  The Power of the Word  has since been published in Russian, Serbo-Croatian, Spanish, Urdu, and eight Indian languages.  We are now developing  regionally specific analyses, the first of these, a book of essays called The Power of the Word II: Women’s Voices and the New European Order,  was published in English and Russian in December, 2000.  It is available for $14 from Women’s WORLD, 208 W. 30th St., #901, New York NY 10001.
3. This conference was held at the Rockefeller Foundation’s center in Bellagio.  Both the Rockefeller Foundation and the Ford Foundation have given consistent and indispensable support to our transnational work; our programs in the Global South have also been supported by European donors.
4. “We” were at this time part of the International PEN Women Writers Committee, which worked energetically on Nasrin’s behalf. Issues that arose during this campaign, and during a previous campaign for the “Five Croatian Witches,” made us realize the need for an independent feminist organization to do global anti-censorship work. 
5. Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from a Forgotten War  (Norton, 1992); the reference is to the zinc coffins in which Russian soldiers returned home.  Prior to the publication of Alexivich’s interviews, many Russians thought their soldiers were in Afghanistan to help the Red Cross.
6. Despite her record as a censored writer, it was almost impossible to raise money from most funds for censored writers because she was sick rather than in prison.  Human Rights Watch was an exception; it renewed her Hammett-Hellman grant.
7. Some might accuse a transnational group of cultural imperialism for defending a writer who is not supported by the women’s movement in her own country.   But there are many reasons   why a women’s movement might not defend one of its more cutting-edge members, including fear, ideological differences, conservatism, personal animosity, and failure to see the importance of artists and writers.  While we do our best to check the facts with local people, we act in solidarity with censored women writers, regardless of what anybody else does.
8.  I speak from experience.  See Meredith Tax, "My Censorship––and Ours," The Nation, March 4, 1995.
9. RELAT is directed by Mariella Sala, who founded the publishing house and radio stations of Flora Tristan.  For RELAT’s program, and links to sister organizations, see its website, www.relat. org. For a discussion of Latin American feminist networks, see Sonia E. Alvarez, “Translating the Global: Effects of Transnational Organizing on Local Feminist Discourses and Practices in Latin America,” Meridians 1.1, 2000, pp. 29-67.
10. The five woman team leading the project consists of Ritu Menon of Women’s WORLD (co-founder of Kali for Women, the oldest women’s press in Asia); Vasanth Kannabiran and Volga, two leading members of Asmita; and the feminist writers Ammu Joseph and Gouri Salvi.  
11. For more thoughts on this subject see my introduction to the new edition of The Rising of the Women: Feminist Solidarity and Class Conflict, 1880-1917, forthcoming from the University of Illinois press in the winter of 2001-2.
Amrita Basu, 2000. “Globalization of the Local/Localization of the Global: Mapping Transnational Women’s Movements,” Meridians I.1: 81.
Siobhan Dowd, 1995. "Women and the Word: the Silencing of the Feminine." In Women's Rights, Human Rights; International Feminist Perspectives, edited by Julie Peters and Andrea Wolper.   New York: Routledge. 319-20.
Meredith Tax, with Marjorie Agosin, Ama Ata Aidoo, Ritu Menon, Ninotchka Rosca and Mariella Sala, 1995. The Power of the Word: Culture, Censorship and Voice .  New Delhi: Women’s WORLD. 20.   Reprinted in Ynestra King and Jael Silliman, eds., 1999.  Dangerous Intersections: Feminist Perspectives on Population, Environment, and Development . Boston: South End Press: 108-132.