"When I started writing, people asked me, 'What is the problem?' I said I didn't have a problem. In my country, men write and they think that it is their right to write... they think that if any woman does write she must have some problem. It is believed that if any woman is unhappy at home she becomes a prostitute, commits suicide or starts writing..."
Celebrated Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasrin realized early on that her voice of dissent was far from appreciated. Threats, political pressure and exile were to be her reward as a writer writing against religious and political oppression.
Yet, Nasrin's predicament of writing in difficult and often life-threatening circumstances can be understood by several of her ilk, particularly those women writers who had gathered at the recent three-day South Asian Women Writers' Colloquium organized by Women's World International in Delhi.
This was more apparent during the discussion of the theme, Writing in a Time of Siege. Several women writers shared their personal experiences of how they have continued to write poems, plays, stories, and articles, despite the challenges and problems that came in the way of their creative pursuit - from conflict, political threat, displacement, social mores and dislocation of various kinds. Women writers from Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India - in English and regional languages - participated in the Colloquium.
Nasrin's story is, of course, largely known. Writing against religious and political authority and against the oppression of women, she was persecuted, charged for blasphemy and finally hounded out of her own country. But wouldn't it have been easier to simply evolve as a writer who wrote about things less controversial and reactionary? Explains Nasrin: " I cannot write a love story when women are oppressed."
Which probably sums up the conviction and raison d'etre of the other women writers who, like Nasrin, cannot skirt painful issues. Opposition has strengthened their word and their conviction. Says Feryal Ali Gauhar of Pakistan, "It is only possible for me to write from a place of deep anguish." Author of 'The Scent of Wet Earth' and 'No Place for Further Burials' (to be released later this month), Gauhar noted, "It is only because I have been beaten and hounded...It is only because I have been imprisoned...It is only because I have been silent in order for others to hear themselves... that I write."
That is not to say that women writers are turning such constraints to their advantage and availing of them as opportunities. Journalist-writer Mamang Dai, who writes from Arunachal Pardesh, talked about writing under siege with reference to certain privileges. The only women journalist in her state, she has for long been "besieged more in other ways .... to become an IAS officer, to become a diplomat..."
Explains Mamang, "I have had to fight very hard not to get into politics or become something other than a writer which is the profession I choose... even though people may be dismissive about writing as a profession."
Other writers impose upon themselves a siege of self-censorship. Ameena Hussein, whose first collection of stories, 'Fifteen', was described as "man hating", is a Sri Lankan Muslim writer who writes "under a cloud of self censorship ...a private siege". Focusing on Sri Lankan Muslims and Muslim women, she says, "Today it is difficult to be a Muslim writer...and slightly more difficult to be a Muslim woman writer. We seem to be losing the space to criticize from within because of all the criticism from outside." According to Hussein, she finds herself analyzing every word and nuance of her work before it is published.
For Saroop Dhruv of Ahmedabad in Gujarat , self censorship as a self-imposed siege was a result of the Gujarat genocide of February 2002. "I was witnessing a Muslim carnage and it was like the failure of a secularist." It was only on the persistence of a friend that Dhruv, known for works such as the play, 'Suno Nadi Kya Kehti Hai' (Listen to the voice of the river) cast off the shackles of her self- imposed silence. Says the playwright, "The voice of dissent must be heard."
Interestingly, spreading that voice far and wide, Dhruv now also writes in Hindi. Her current work that records the narratives of women survivors of the 2002 riots is penned in Hindi and will be published under the title 'Ummeed' (Hope).
If Dhruv was shocked into a self-imposed silence by the Gujarat killings, another Ahmedabad denizen - Esther David - was traumatized into a willful displacement. "I can't forget it's over. Earlier there were illusionary walls; now there are real walls...After 2002, I do not say what I wish to say...I have been feeling helpless... I am a minority." As a result, this Jewish artist-cum-writer of works such as 'The Walled City' has decided to move from her scenic and ancestral bungalow bordering now-polarized areas of two communities; she had to - in order to "retain her sanity", she says.
Continuing on the issue of displacement, essayist, novelist and playwright Mridula Garg recalled her own instance of being dislocated by having to give up a job and move to the city of her husband's profession, many years ago. Yet, she strongly believes that a writer's sense of social responsibility, rather than being quelled, gains "greater fortitude with greater challenges".
So even if a woman writer is seen as incapable of writing a well-researched novel on the Green Revolution in Andhra Pradesh - such as 'Regadi Vittulu' - writers with a sense of social responsibility continue to pen their thoughts despite phases of self-imposed censorship and the fear of abduction. Author of 'Regadi Vittulu' (Seeds of Black Soil), Telugu writer Chandra Latha was eventually seen as anti- development for continuing to pursue issues of development and the concomitant displacement that is acutely endured by women.
While writing under a siege may have been a lonely and intimidating experience for many of the writers, enduring the circumstances has helped several of them see the realization of their beliefs.
Author of 'Forget Kathmandu', Manjushree Thapa, spoke about writing in the thick of the Nepal revolution, in a witch-hunt environment and in self-imposed exile. Whatever the circumstances, it is, as Thapa stated, not the speaking that harms but the silence.
Fortunately, such is the power of their conviction that struggling for space and intellectual freedom has only strengthened the voices of women writers. And when Feryal Ali Gauhar declared, "As I a woman, I have a voice more powerful because it is constantly being shut down," her peers, irrespective of their language or nationality, understood her instantly.