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In A Room of Her Own Virginia Woolf asked why the literary and intellectual world (overwhelmingly male in 1929) was so cold to works written by women. She concluded that men need to believe women see them as superior beings in order to justify their control of society; hence evidence of women’s actual views is unwelcome. Silencing of women writers is thus essential to patriarchy. Recent cases of gender-based censorship, ranging from Taslima Nasrin in India to feminist bloggers in the United States, indicate that Woolf’s analysis still holds.
And what is gender-based censorship? The Women’s World Organization for Rights, Literature and Development (Women's WORLD) defined it in The Power of the Word: Culture, Censorship and Voice, drafted by yours truly in 1995:
"Women who write on issues of state politics are silenced by the same means used to silence men in opposition, though, in practice, even these forms of censorship are affected by gender. But gender-based censorship, as we see it, is much broader and more pervasive than this official, organized suppression. It is embedded in a range of social mechanisms that mute women's voices, deny validity to their experience, and exclude them from the political discourse. Its purpose is to obscure the real conditions of women's lives and the inequity of patriarchal gender relations, and prevent women writers from breaking the silence, by targeting women who don't know their place in order to intimidate the rest.”
Though much gender-based censorship today is done in the name of religion, its roots are in misogyny and sexual panic. Take, for instance, the US, where this month’s big story is "Why Women Aren't Welcome on the Internet," by feminist journalist Amanda Hess, who describes herself as a freelance writer reporting on sex, Hollywood, teenagers, and technology, and whose blog is called Sex with Amanda Hess. Among other examples, she notes the blizzard of online rape threats that hit Caroline Criado-Perez when she started a website petitioning the Bank of England to put more women’s faces on banknotes. Hess also notes the lack of action on internet death and rape threats and the assiduous passing of the buck between law enforcement agencies and internet companies. Last year, for instance, US atheist blogger “skepchick” Rebecca Watson found that the reaction of the police when she reported death and rape threats was to say they couldn’t do anything unless someone actually did attack her, “at which point they’d have a pretty good lead.”
All this can have a chilling effect on women’s freedom of expression. As Hess relates, “Threats of rape, death, and stalking can overpower our emotional bandwidth, take up our time, and cost us money through legal fees, online protection services, and missed wages.” Conor Friedersdorf postulates that such “gendered online abuse” may explain why there are so few prominent women bloggers compared to men; in response to a constant stream of threats and invective, many of his women friends “either shuttered their personal blogs and stopped writing for the public, or shifted their journalistic efforts to a traditional format rather than the more personalized blog format.”
The internet is an area in which censorship operates differently for men and women, for the interests of women bloggers, who need to feel safe enough to write, conflict with those of internet trolls who want to feel free to abuse women as much as they like. The feminist movement fought for many years to develop legal protections like the US Violence Against Women Act, which criminalizes phone threats, and recently proposed including online threats. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a watchdog group, opposed this idea, citing privacy considerations. But should privacy trump death threats? In the age of Snowden, nobody wants to call for more government interference in online communications yet, like freedom of religion, male self-expression must be limited by recognition that women too have rights, and that women’s voices—especially when they take up subjects others do not want to deal with—are central to democracy, equality, and the public good.
The same consideration applies to Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasrin, whose censors have brewed a lethal mix of fundamentalism, political opportunism, and sexual silencing to try to shut her up. In 1994 Nasrin was driven from Bangladesh by a combination of Islamist fatwa and government indictment for “offending religious feelings.” The Islamists hated the way she criticized religion and the government hated her because she wrote a book exposing Muslim violence against Hindus, which the Bangladesh National Party government claimed did not exist. She was put under death threat, went underground, and became one of the Northern media’s first poster girls for Islamist mistreatment of women. I helped organize a campaign on her behalf at the time and, I wrote in 2002, thought sex was as central to her persecution as religion or politics:
"Nasrin did not have to flee Bangladesh merely because she wrote a novel about the persecution of its Hindu minority, or told an Indian reporter the Sharia ... was outdated and should be left behind. Other Bangladeshi writers, male and female, have said such things; some have also been threatened by fundamentalists; but most are still there. Nasrin combined the violation of those taboos with an even more daring transgression: She opened the closet door on a whole world of subterranean sexual experience and feeling, much of it abusive, and none of it considered fit to be discussed. She wrote about sex and religion and state politics all together, and she did it at a bad time, when fundamentalism was on the rise. The combination did her in.”
Nasrin eventually settled in Kolkata ,where she lived quite happily from 2004 until 2007, when Islamists began protesting her existence again. What had begun as a movement by poor, largely Muslim farmers against forced industrialization and land seizures in Nandigram got deflected by political manipulation into a riot over Nasrin. The ruling party in West Bengal, at that time the leftwing CPI(M), found it a lot easier to get rid of her than to deal with land issues. When I saw Nasrin the next year in New York, she told me they had shipped her off to Delhi without even giving her time to pack. In Delhi the federal government essentially kept her under house arrest for months, claiming this was for her own protection while trying to convince her to get out of India.
One might ask why leftwing secularist parties like the CPI(M) and its federal ally, the Congress Party, would collude with Muslim fundamentalists to suppress free speech. As Nasrin says, it is all about electoral politics. “Who doesn’t want to get Muslim votes? They are 25% of the population.”
She stayed away for a few years, then returned to India and, being barred from Kolkata, settled in Delhi, where she resumed work on a projected TV series for a Bengali station. The series, called Doohshahobash, which means something like Difficult Cohabitations, is about a Hindu family of three sisters who confront various kinds of gender oppression. The station ran a huge advertising campaign, plastering Taslima’s face on billboards around Kolkata, and the series was to be broadcast in December.
But suddenly, on December 20th, everything ground to a halt when a coalition of 22 Islamist groups went to the government of West Bengal, now led by the Trinamool Congress party. Even though they hadn’t seen any of the series, they were so certain it would offend Muslims that they insisted it should be banned; otherwise people might riot. And, like the CPI(M) before it, the Trinamool Congress caved. A station spokesperson told The Hindu, "due to external pressure we have deferred the telecast of this serial indefinitely."
As Nasrin noted in her blog, this censorship was met by a stunning lack of protest from Kolkata’s literary community. Garga Chatterjee made a similar point in the Indian weekly Outlook: “Kolkata’s current and the erstwhile rulers, the Trinamool Congress and the CPI(M) respectively, seem to be competing with each other in setting a record on muzzling free speech at the instigation of groups in whose worldview free speech has no place. While there may be short-term electoral gain for such posturing, this race to the bottom has no winners.”
The silence of Kolkata’s literary lions may have more to do with male sexual solidarity than party politics. Nasrin is not deferential and has always been outspoken on issues of rape, child molestation, and sexual harassment. The second volume of her memoirs, Dwikhandito, was banned in Kolkata, allegedly because it violated Muslim sentiments, but she told me in 2005 that the real reason was because she named names about sexual harassment and relationships within the literary elite. She recently accused a well known Delhi intellectual, Sunil Gangopadhyay, of taking advantage of his position to harass young women writers. Public discussion of this kind of thing is relatively new in India, where a law against workplace sexual harassment was just passed in April 2013, and a young journalist’s story of being assaulted in an elevator by her editor at the muckraking paper Tehelka made headlines in November.
A democracy’s commitment to freedom of expression can be measured by how it treats two groups of people: those of such low status that they have no voice, and those who push the limits of acceptable speech. There is no need to protect those who are powerful and those who never offend. Protesting gender-based censorship is part of mobilizing against rape and sexual harassment, for women’s freedom of expression and movement are related, and if either is limited to what does not offend, it will not exist.
Public secular space, on the internet and on the streets, in intellectual fora and on TV, is essential to the health of civil society. This space must be as accessible to women and atheists as to men and the pious. That means that men—including Kolkata intellectuals and US bloggers—should defend women’s right to a public voice, and women should be able to speak publicly without fear of violence. And if these women then offend against male amour-propre, hey, as Virginia Woolf said in 1929, that’s part of free speech.