Why free speech is a feminist issue

Twenty years ago, at the UN Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, an extraordinary group of women activists forced the human rights movement to confont the sexism that had shaped their agenda until that time. The promise of Vienna was that the access to rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration would be made explicit in relation to women and gender.

The conference declaration said: “All human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent and interrelated. The international community must treat human rights globally in a fair and equal manner, on the same footing, and with the same emphasis.” It went into considerable detail about what this means for women.

However the Vienna Declaration said very little about free expression. Nor was this omission rectified in the Beijing Declaration on Women’s Rights in 1995. The year before, after serving as founding chair of the International PEN Women Writers Committee, I had become President of a new organisation, Women’s WORLD (Women’s World Organisation for Rights, Literature and Development).

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Women hold a banner to ‘Save the Girl Child’ during a 2012 International Women’s Day rally in Agartala

Women’s WORLD was set up to investigate and advocate against gender-based censorship, both formal and informal, and to defend feminist writers. We prepared a document for Beijing called The Power of the Word: Culture, Censorship and Voice, emphasising the importance of voice and thus of women writers to the struggle for women’s equality:

“The subordination of women is basic to all social systems based on dominance; for this reason, conservatives hate and fear the voices of women. That is why so many religions have made rules against women preaching or even speaking in the house of worship. That is why governments keep telling women to keep quiet: ‘You’re in the Constitution,’ they will say, ‘you have the vote, so you have no right to complain.’ But having a voice is as important, perhaps more important, than having a vote. When censors attack women writers, they do so in order to intimidate all women and keep them from using their right to free expression. Gender-based censorship is therefore a problem not only for women writers, but for everyone concerned with the emancipation of women.

“Women writers are a threat to systems built on gender hierarchy because they open doors for other women. By expressing the painful contradictions between men and women in their society, by exposing the discrepancy between what society requires of women and what they need to be fulfilled, woman writers challenge the status quo…[and] make a breach in the wall of silence. They say things no one has ever said before and say them in print, where anyone can read and repeat them.”

As President of Women’s WORLD, I produced an analysis of the Declaration and Platform for Action that came out of the Beijing Conference. While recognising the Platform of Action was a huge step forward in translating women’s issues into the language of human rights, I concluded that it fell short in the area of free expression, for these reasons:

  •  The Platform of Action did not consider the centrality of voice to female emancipation. It did not mention censorship nor recognise that women’s right to free expression is jeopardised in many parts of the world, and that the silencing of women is a barrier to both development and democracy.
  • With the exception of indigenous women, who were seen to have a culture and the right to develop it, the Platform of Action framed culture in negative terms, as something that limited women’s rights rather than as something women make, transmit, and shape.
  • The Platform of Action’s main concern with media was in terms of harmful portrayals of women, with some slight emphasis on the need for women to have access to the new electronic media. Nowhere did it mention that free expression is not only a right but the means to protect other rights, nor the social contributions women could make if their voices were not continually suppressed.

Our paper for Beijing said, “While there is no question that indigenous and colonised peoples are under particular cultural assault, all women need cultural rights. We need the time and space and access to means of cultural expression to be able to articulate our own social values. Without attention to culture, sustainable development and real democracy are not possible, because profound changes must necessarily be culture-related. Women’s silence is thus as serious a problem as poverty itself, and is both a cause of poverty and its effect.”

In the years after 1995, Women’s WORLD struggled to raise issues of voice but kept running up against a narrowing of women’s human rights to the issue of violence against women, while we were striving for a more inclusive vision that would connect this violence to culture, religion, economics, power politics, censorship and war. Our work was also affected by a separation within the human rights movement between groups that deal mainly with free expression and the big mainstream multi-issue groups.

This same separation was reflected in the global movement for women’s human rights. For instance, when the Women’s Human Rights Defenders International Coalition released a global report in 2012 on dangers facing feminists in various regions, it did not even think of drawing on the many years of experience of groups that defend writers and journalists, many of whom are women.

In the last few years, the global women’s movement has found itself stonewalled by the rise of religious fundamentalism to the degree that many activists now oppose moves for another UN conference on women, fearing that the gains of the 90s will be undermined.

The UN Council on Human Rights has been a battleground over issues of culture, with a newly religious Russia forming a bloc with many African and Muslim-majority countries, to support a resolution calling for the application of the “traditional values of humankind” to human rights norms. Such “traditional values” are, of course, invoked whenever women, sexual minorities, or religious minorities want equal rights, including the right to free expression.

In the darkness of this backlash against women’s human rights, the UN’s 2009 appointment of Pakistani feminist Farida Shaheed, first as an independent expert and now as the special rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, was one of the few rays of light. In her 2012 report, Shaheed flagged ways in which fundamentalism impinges on women’s exercise of their cultural rights, as when “solo female singing has been banned and restrictions have been placed on female musicians performing in public concerts.”

She linked culture to violence against women, pointing out that when women try to deviate from the dominant culture of their communities or interpret and reshape them, “they often confront disproportionate opposition, including different forms of violence, for acts as apparently simple as choosing who to marry, how to dress, or where to go.”

She has taken a proactive approach to women’s cultural production, shifting the perspective from seeing culture as an obstacle to women’s human rights to ensuring that women have equal cultural rights. Hopefully her work as special rapporteur will help turn back the proponants of the “traditional values of mankind,” and encourage a wider recognition that freedom of expression is critical to equality for women.

Meredith Tax, an American writer and activist, is Chair of the Board of the Centre for Secular Space, a new thinktank based in London http://www.meredithtax.org/