Human Rights, Women’s Rights, and Women Writers: Some Questions of Policy

OCT. 26, 1993


This was the keynote speech at the NEWW conference on “Gender, Nationalism, and Democratization: Policy Initiatives for Central and Eastern Europe,” in Washington, Oct. 26-7 1993. It was later published in ProFemina in Belgrade, spring, 1995.


          Many governments nowadays, wishing to be considered democratic, say that they consider women’s human rights a priority. But what does that mean we should expect them to do? I would like to lay out a few principles as a guidelines, discuss them in relation to women writers, then touch on some general questions of policy.
I. Three principles 
          1) People are not property. Specifically, women, in any country, are not the property of husbands, fathers or brothers, on the one hand, or nations, on the other. Nor are they the symbolic equivalent of nations or of the land, ownable and expropriable. They are individual citizens just like men.
          Rape in the service of ethnic cleansing makes women into property—devalued property. So does the exploitation of such rapes in the service of nationhood. Both treat women not as individual people but as embodiments of a nation whose honor has been insulted and whose worth has been lowered because “its” women were used by another nation. The abused women of the former Yugoslavia are individuals to be cared for; human rights offenses against them should be prosecuted as crimes against individuals, not nations.
          2) We should insist that our governments stand up for individual freedom, including reproductive freedom for women. Nations trying to repopulate themselves often see women as a natural resource, like fields to be sown. Such governments may deny them abortion rights and contraception; they may drive them out of employment and reward births. They should be told such behavior is inappropriate in a democracy; citizens should be able to decide upon their own career patterns and number of children, free of state coercion or manipulation.
          In general, we should see any case involving a woman first in terms of individual citizenship and human rights, and only then in terms of gender. Taking individual rights as our guideline will strengthen us to resist self-interested arguments made by nations, states, and male elites who would like to protect their women from emancipation.
          3) In all their work, governments, NGOs, and feminists should consult grassroots women leaders, women in mass organizations, women who know local conditions. Governments should seek them out and ask their opinions in the course of formulating policy—any policy, not just policy about women. Women also have opinions about nuclear power, foreign relations, economic reforms, war and peace, but their opinions are often devalued and buried within their own society, and thus inaccessible except to those who make special efforts. Women do not necessarily want what their male leaders say they want, nor do they necessarily want what Western feminists think they should want. If we are interested in what they want—and we should be interested—we should ask them.
II. Women Writers and Human Rights 
          Any discussion of human rights must start with the rights of the individual. But which individual? Not all citizens are equally liable to suffer human rights abuses. People who are powerful, physically strong, and protected by an elevated social and economic position are less likely to be raped than people who are little, weak, and poor. People who never say anything obnoxious are less likely to be censored than those who push the limits of public tolerance. So we will not go wrong if we measure a democracy by its treatment of the most vulnerable and the most obnoxious. Women writers fall in both categories.
          During my term as Chair of the Women Writers’ Committee of International PEN, I did intensive work on cases involving women writers in Croatia, Brazil, and Bangladesh. In the course of this work, I observed that there are three things a woman writer should do if she wants to become a human rights case. (She doesn’t necessarily have to do all three: in many countries, two are enough.)
          The first thing she should do is remove herself from the protection of the patriarchal family. Depending on where she lives, she can refuse to marry, be gay, marry too many times, marry a person of the wrong nationality, or simply decide she doesn’t want to live with her parents or her husband any more.
          The second thing she should do is write about the oppression of women, preferably in an impassioned, militant voice. It will help if she gives specific examples of oppressed women, names the names of those who have harmed them, and calls the government to account for not defending them. The more specific her writing is, the more likely she is to become a human rights case.
          The third thing she should do is refuse to restrict her social criticism to the condition of women but also tackle subjects that men consider their own, like ethnic and national conflicts, or war and peace. Two of the “five Croatian witches” got driven into exile for taking the wrong tone towards nationhood. Taslima Nasrin became so obnoxious to political fundamentalists in Bangladesh that they put a price on her head. The reason: she combined irreverence towards Islamic texts on women with a critique of nationalism and state treatment of her country’s Hindu minority. The combination did her in.
III. Policy 
          Which leads us back to state policy. Surely any state or NGO trying to strengthen democracy will encourage and defend those who are trying to build modern multicultural civil societies, rather than those who are trying to build societies based on blood, religion, ethnicity, or historical myth. An epidemic of atavistic bloodlust is sweeping much of the world; people are turning inward and backward, focusing on blood, family, territory, religion, ancient traditions; looking for strong male authoritarian leaders who can help them turn their rage upon their next-door neighbor, the hereditary enemy. This tendency is bad for women. It is bad for everybody except warriors and dictators. We all must try to support those forces capable of struggle against such atavism before they reach the pass they have in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and large parts of the former Soviet Union.
          That means we should take an active interest in culture wars, even ones that seem stupid and unworthy. Such a culture war is now on the agenda in my own country, where religious obscurantists are making an increasingly successful bid for political power. A culture war, successfully fought, may prevent a later war of blood; Serbian dissidents now talk about how they failed to combat nationalism aggressively enough when they had the chance.
          A number of countries are at risk in the world today, including my own: countries where forces of dark intolerance are gaining against the forces of openness and civility, which is to say, civil society. We should weigh in decisively on the side of civility. The people who want to push women back into the Middle Ages are the same as those who dream of ethnic, religious, and national wars of extermination. Equitable development and preservation of the planet do not take place in wartime; neither does protection of human rights; policies that support the global emancipation of women will also serve sustainable development and peace.