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/

Bahrain bans all protests

Bahrain has banned all demonstrations following clashes between police and anti-government protestors on Monday (29 October). Interior minister Sheikh Rashid Al Khalifah said that the clampdown was a result of the “repeated abuses” of freedom of expression.

The emergency move is the largest scale attempt to quash the Gulf kingdom’s anti-government uprising which began in February of last year.

Index on Censorship award winner Nabeel Rajab is currently serving a three-year jail sentence for organising “illegal protests”.

Letter from America: Equating right-wing politics with violence could undermine political speech for all

In the days since Anders Behring Breivik — the accused perpetrator of Friday’s deadly attacks in Norway — has been identified as a Christian right-wing extremist, some liberals in the US have descended on the episode as another opportunity to draw a straight line between hard-right political causes and actual violence. The meme has been gaining steam since the early rise of the Tea Party, a group that occasionally celebrates its Second Amendment gun rights by toting weapons to public rallies.

“Norway, US, Worldwide — is Right-Wing Violence endemic?” asks a blog post on the popular liberal Internet enclave Fire Dog Lake. Explains the writer:

“Right-wing supporters, here in the US and around the world, have a long history of resorting to, or actually embracing, violence. People from politicians, to preachers to doctors have all been shot because of their perceived (and perhaps real) left leaning political views.”

The author then proceeds to compile a list of recent incidents involving right-wing violence, including mention of the January shooting of Democratic congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

ThinkProgress, a liberal blog affiliated with the progressive Center for American Progress, has published an oddly beside-the-point revelation that the “Norway Terrorist is a Global Warming Denier“, as if this contributes further damning evidence of the ideological similarity between mass murderers and run-of-the-mill conservatives. In another post, the blog cites “evidence that [Breivik] was a fan of far-right bloggers and political parties.”

It then uses the occasion to chastise Rep. Peter King, who has refused to include homegrown terrorism threats – read: threats from neo-Nazis and other domestic right-wing extremists — in his congressional hearings investigating the radicalisation of American Muslims. King, since the Norway attacks, has held to that position.

Of course, it would be preferable for King to abandon the hearings all together rather than to add domestic political partisans to his already dubious investigation of the Muslim community. But the hint of “endemic” right-wing violence poses a different challenge – and that’s that we head down a tricky path in trying to draw systemic conclusions about political ideology and specific incidents of bloodshed.

It’s possible — as has turned out to be the case with Giffords’ shooter — that the defining characteristic of Breivik and other such violent rogues isn’t their politics, but their mental instability. And conflating the two could be problematic for political speech in the long run.

Sarah Palin was widely indicted after the Giffords shooting, which left six dead in an Arizona strip-mall parking lot, for having produced a map of political opponents targeted in the 2010 election with gun-sight symbols over their districts. Pundits speculated that such a map could have motivated Jared Lee Loughner to take Palin’s suggestion literally. (Subsequently, there was no evidence Loughner ever even saw Palin’s campaign graphic.)

Since then, Americans have been struggling mightily with the consequences of political discourse, with what it means to be “civil” at a time of rising political acrimony, and with the murky causal connection between words, ideas and violent action. It’s an important discussion. But chalking up the Norway shooting as another example that “right-wing ideas = violence” doesn’t add much to it.

Joshua Foust, writing in The Atlantic, is equally firm on this point:

“In order to tar all of Europe’s right, even just the upsetting xenophobes clothing themselves in worry about jihad, you must demonstrate a causal mechanism by which concern over cultural outsiders becomes murderous rage against the very people you claim to protect (in this case, ethnic Norwegians). Without being too trite, it requires an especially deranged mind already far outside the mainstream to decide to slaughter children at summer camp just because it is run by a left-wing political party. Associating that sort of mentality with the mainstream is not just wrong and lazy, it is hypocritical.

Indeed, much of the Western’s left’s quasi-triumphalism over the Norwegian tragedy revolves around it’s complete non-relationship to Islamic terror. Here, so many seem to celebrate, is the proof they had finally sought that right-wing politics are not just annoying and wrong, but actively dangerous.”

That argument may be politically profitable in the short term. But in the long run, suggesting political beliefs — whether liberal or conservative — are synonymous with incitement to violence could wind up undermining the rights of even those making such an argument today.

Syria: Government crackdown results in mass casualties

The Syrian regime has launched a massive crackdown against protestors demanding political reform in the country. The killing of protestors in 14 separate towns on April 22 heralded a dramatic escalation in violence. In an attempt to pre-empt further protests, the government ordered (25 April) tanks to move in to the city of Deera, which has been at the centre of unrest in the last few weeks. Human rights groups have estimated that 400 people have been killed by security forces since protests began five weeks ago.