By the second day of the World Voices Festival 2006, hosted by the PEN American Centre, it did not seem far-fetched to think that a Women's World Voices colloquium may be a necessary corollary. Many of the more provocative ideas and points of debate appeared to spin - sometimes unspoken - around issues of feminism and faith, feminism and globalization and what it means to be a woman writer in our current political environment. Perhaps, this year's theme of Faith and Reason spearheaded this accidental, but highly charged, focus - after all, the constructs of faith and reason have been critical players in feminist struggles around the world and continue to be negotiated in the daily lives of women writers.
At the inaugural event, Orhan Pamuk and author Margaret Atwood engaged in a conversation in which her first question to him addressed the word 'shame', that had cropped up in his speech, but one that also appears in his work, sometimes coupled with guilt and sometimes with pride. As Pamuk described the contexts in which shame resides for the hero of his novel 'Snow' - in Germany for not being western enough and in Turkey for not being Turkish enough; sometimes feeling ashamed of himself, and sometimes of his fellow citizens - one could not help but think of another male writer who had tackled the subject - Salman Rushdie, chairperson of the World Voices Festival, author of the novel 'Shame', who was sitting in the audience.
But what does a contemporary woman writer have to say about the topic of shame, of the modern-day signifiers of a word that has historically been linked - even if falsely - to the domain of women? Shame is a sentiment that is frequently linked to taboo, so is it even reasonable, given how far feminism has come, to beg the opinion of a woman writer? The questions loomed silently in the auditorium.
But the following day, the topic of shame was invoked heatedly, if indirectly, in a panel on honor killings. Ritu Menon, author of 'Borders and Boundaries: Women in India's Partition' rejected, outright, the appendage 'honor' to killings that are "sexual, criminal, murderous and cannot masquerade and mustn't be allowed to masquerade as such (honorable)."
Fellow panelist, Necla Kelek, a Turk who lives in Germany, and the author of 'Foreign Bride', blamed Islam, a religion she considers "archaic" and "demeaning", for the existence of 'honor' killings. In harsh, unyielding terms, she delineated the Turkish immigrants in Germany as an obscurantist group, resistant to change. The moderator, Robert Pollock, echoed Kelek's sentiments, chiming in with shockingly low-brow statements, such as the one he kept repeating: "Can you expect respect from a culture where women wear headscarves?"
It was left to Menon to navigate the commentary back to the discourse of 'honor' killings. "In India, we are not speaking of migrant communities and not about a transition to modernity..." she countered, and went on to speak of the large-scale murders of women - Hindu, Muslim, Sikh - by their own families during Partition, in an effort to prevent them from falling prey to other communities. She challenged Kelek's thesis that Islam, today, was solely responsible for abhorrent crimes against women by pointing to the unarguable fact of India's religiously diverse population, where research has shown that as far as crimes against women are concerned, "one community is not more reprehensible than the other".
Menon's delivery had the audience clapping and cheering. "Why is there this consensus when talking about women?" she asked, pointing out that it was economic and social factors and a patriarchal consensus that propagated the violence. "If a woman chooses to marry outside (of class, or caste), the resources of the family have to be divided..."
Nevertheless, it was hard to ignore Kelek's absolute and authoritarian refusal to think beyond the bogey of Islam. Her ploy to pit her own enlightened, secular identity against the convenience of a simplistically constructed Other - Turkish immigrants in Germany - who serve as a synecdoche of the 'Muslim world' at large.
Unlike Pamuk's fictional hero in 'Snow', Kelek's shame at her own community is not complicated by feelings of guilt, but instead, is simplified by a complete disavowal of her own history. It is an isolating position for a writer but, perhaps, in Kelek's case - a Turkish immigrant woman in an increasingly anti-religious Europe - it has become an opportunity to have her voice heard in much the same way as it has for Ayaan Hirsi Ali, an immigrant from Somalia, and author of 'The Caged Virgin', who is currently a member of parliament in Holland.
By contrast, Vietnam War veteran and author Duong Thu Huong came across as a woman who stays her ground and fights the oppressive system from within. "From all the bravery to die, we didn't have the intelligence to live decently," she declared, taking responsibility in a collective shame. "That's why I became a troublemaker...I write to tell my people how to live a life that is fit to live." Huong continued to reside in a country that banned her books and whose government sent out letters naming her the number one enemy of the State. She, it seems, demanded a different exegesis of history, and fought to achieve it, even as she drew strength from aspects of an ambivalent legacy. "I have two persons in me, " she claimed, "one is a fighter for democracy...The second personality is a woman with black teeth. If there was no such woman inside me, I'd have been dead a long time ago. This Vietnamese woman teaches me to be patient and understanding...When I am sad and disheartened, I think of the Vietnamese woman carrying a load up the hill...Such old images give me strength."
If globalization is the perceived antidote to the residual 'medieval' influences lingering today, then the world is in for another shock. In a panel titled 'Globalization, Fundamentalism and Women', Menon suggested replacing the term globalization with 'market fundamentalism' and stripping away the advertising hype around it. For, she said, "then we would see why [globalization] was so comfortable with fundamentalisms of all kinds, that they are not in opposition with each other...and they're never good for women because...all fundamentalisms make for a certain patriarchy." She pointed out that "the globalization of the West's war on terrorism has made it very easy for Hindu fundamentalists - and every religion has fundamentalists - to terrorize Muslims with impunity," adding: "It's a strange place to be in, especially as a woman writer who has been trying to alert the world to all this for a long time. It's a bizarre and unsettling context in which to write. It's a kind of a siege."
Festival participants Menon, Huong and Croatian author Dubravka Ugresik, who has been targeted for "insufficient nationalism", brought critical feminist perspectives to bear on debates that would have been anemic without their insight. Their writing deliberately seeks out the splintered truth, exposing the shameful mechanisms by which violence is perpetuated.