Women Writers in Peril

**This post was originally published on my Women Writer’s blog in September 2008; I have since closed that blog and will be periodically re-posting articles from that blog to Caribousmom.

In 2007, 45 writers from 22 countries received Hellman/Hammett grants from Human Rights Watch, an organization which supports writers around the world who have been targets of political persecution. The grants, funded through American playwright Lillian Hellman’s estate, are designed to “assist writers in financial need as a result of expressing their views.” Although most of the 2007 grant recipients were men, there were several women identified as being in peril.

Liu Di (China), pen name Stainless Mouse, was imprisoned without trial for more than one year during 2002-2003. A post-graduate psychology student at Beijing Normal University, her blog articles were highly critical of the Chinese government.  She has since been branded a “dissident writer” and has been unable to find work.  Despite living in fear, Di has continued to write articles on the Internet. Interviewed by BlogCritics Magazine, Di was quoted as saying: “It’s the right thing for me to do, so I’m going to keep doing it.” For additional information about Di, readers may refer to this Wikipedia article.

Jenny Johanna Manique Cortes (Colombia) is a journalist. As editor of the Bucaramanga newspaper Vanguardia Liberal she came under threat when the paper reported on victims of local and regional armed conflict. Warned that she was on a paramilitary ‘black list’ of journalists targeted for assassination, Cortes fled to Bogota and then Peru where she worked as freelance reporter. She remains in a refugee program in Argentina due to fear for her life.

Maria Luisa Leiva Viamonte (Cuba) is one of the founders of Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White), a group of wives and mothers of imprisoned dissidents. She also wrote for the international section of the magazine De Cuba, published by a group of independent journalists, until it was shut down due to the threat of arrest by the security police. Many Cuban journalists stopped writing in 2003 when the threats escalated and 75 human rights defenders, independent journalists, and librarians were summarily tried and sentenced  to terms of up to 28 years in prison. But Viamonte continues to write articles and signs all her work even while being threatened and followed.

Lydia Cacho (Mexico) is a freelance writer who has published a book of poetry, two novels and The Devils of Eden, a 2005 expose of politically connected people whom she cited as having connections to prostitution and child pornography. Sued by one of the businessmen she had named, Cacho was arrested and denied access to her lawyer before being released on bail. In May 2006, Cacho took up the cause of abuse of women in Mexico, specifically the unsolved murders in Ciudad Juarez. Cacho was honored by Amnesty International in 2007 for her crusade against pedophiles while continuing to be in peril herself. In a 2007 interview with Mother Jones, Cacho was quoated as saying: “I won’t negotiate my dignity because it has to do with my real freedom—my freedom of speech, my freedom of being a woman, protecting others.

Tran Khai Thanh Thuy (Vietnam) is a novelist and journalist who has written numerous novels and political essays. She edits To Quoc (Fatherland), which is printed clandestinely in Hanoi, Hue, and Ho Chi Minh City, and is circulated on the internet. Thuy has been repeatedly denounced and humiliated in public meetings organized by the authorities. In one public event, police gathered 300 people in a  stadium to insult her. She has been labeled a traitor and a prostitute, and mobs have threatened to beat her. She and her husband have been harassed at their workplaces. In September and October of 2006, she was interrogated and detained by authorities, and in November she was dismissed from her job. She was locked in her house by authorities during the November 2006 APEC meetings. Reporters without Borders reported in January 2008 that Thuy “was sentenced to nine months in prison by a court in Hanoi today for “disturbing public order” but was released because she had already spent more than nine months in custody awaiting trial.

These are only a small sample of women writers who face terrible challenges because of attempts to silence them. Many women are forced into exile from their countries in order to ensure their safety. In a fascinating article published by Goliath and titled: Crossing borders: the extent to which the voices of exiled and refugee women have adapted to their new Western diasporic space, the author writes:

Censorship is one of the serious threats to the freedom of the writer and in many cases, in order for a writer to remain in his or her country, there was a compulsion to operate a system of self-censorship or to veil one’s ideas in allegory and imagery. The power of the pen was respected and often the only means of opposition and therefore extremely dangerous for the writer. In Iran, poetry was known as the ’symbolic language of political dissidence’. Many writers in exile continue to have difficulty in writing openly partly because of this. Nahid Husseini, an exiled Iranian journalist, told me that she believes that it is difficult for Iranian writers to write openly and directly in exile given that they have long been accustomed to censorship and that the style of writing openly is not customary in Iranian culture. Also in Iranian culture there is a concept called ’sharm’ which applies to women. According to Rouhi Shafii in Scent of Saffron (1997), it involves both an internal state and an external behaviour. It accompanies feelings of embarrassment, shyness or self-restraint and a women’s public self-erasure.

I feel humbled by the voices of these women – women who are not afraid to continue to write despite a persistent and frightening effort to stop them. To read more about efforts to help women writers in peril as well as other individuals whose rights are being violated, readers may be interested in the website for Human Rights Watch.

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