A work from sorrow: The PEN International Women’s Manifesto

The Mexican-American author Jennifer Clement was elected to PEN International’s first ever female President in 94 years in 2015. Clement talks about how PEN’s historical women’s manifesto was developed and how it was received. The manifesto has been translated into 30 languages and has been launched all over the world.

November 29 2018 Text: Jennifer Clement

In October 2017 I travelled to Israel to visit the Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour who was under house arrest awaiting trial for a poem she’d written and posted on social media called‘Resist, my people resist them’. As a resident of the Galilee village of Reineh near Nazareth, Tatour is part of Israel’s Palestinian minority, who form nearly 20 percent of Israel’s population. While Tatour is free now, at that time she was awaiting trial and a prison sentence. 

At her house I gave her a copy of the Women’s Manifesto. She was deeply moved by the document as she has always fought for her independence in a restrictively patriarchal society. Tatour placed her hand over her heart and said, “This document is about me. It represents me as a woman, as a human being. It represents the pain that I feel as part of the women’s community … It summarizes in a real way the things I have faced”.  

In 2015 I was elected the first woman President of PEN International in almost 100 years since its founding in 1921. I knew then I needed to address this anomaly and address the silencing of women’s voices worldwide into the organization. I also knew well of the committed work of the PEN Women’s Committee and their grave concerns for women writers and how they’d worked hard to have a woman president since the committee’s founding 25 years ago. 

In my speech at the congress in Quebec, Canada, I said, “This is a noteworthy hour for PEN and for equal rights for men and women. We believe in words and know their power, so I can say here tonight what everyone in this room, a room of writers, can understand. There are languages where nouns are divided up by gender. This is true of Spanish and French—two of PEN’s three official languages. What would happen if, in languages that divide things by gender, everything with female gender disappeared? Think for a minute of a world with half of everything missing—the moon, clouds, and stars to begin with. Symbolically this is what is happening in the world every time a girl is not allowed to learn to read or write or have ownership over her body and mind –half the world, half the human experience is missing. There would be no magic, there would be no rain, there would be no word: La magia, la lluvia, la palabra. La chance, la lune, la parole. There would be no chair, no empty chair. 

Gender censorship is an important part of loss of freedom of expression. How many great novels and poems are missing? How many ground-breaking ideas and discoveries? I know there are whole libraries that don’t exist because of gender censorship.  Here I note: our Charter does not include gender in its call for a just and peaceful way of living. The Charter states: PEN members mustdo their utmost to dispel race, class and national hatreds. This should change. With millions of girls silenced all over the world, PEN must stand and say no more”.

After I was elected, supported by the PEN International Board, the Charter was changed in 2017, after two years of discussions, with unanimity at the congress in Liviv. The modification was to Article 3—a product of the early 20thCentury, which hadn’t changed for some 90 years. Nonetheless, its formulation had been subject to criticism in recent years, for the limitation of the classes of ‘hatreds’, which members must oppose to those of race, class and nations—all identities of key importance in the 1920s. So where did this leave PEN on issues of our current debates on gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion and other categories of identity?

During my campaign for International Presidency, I identified the need to amend this article of the Charter but a lively debate at the 82ndCongress around a proposal to amend the list of ‘hatreds’ that must be opposed highlighted several different viewpoints on the proposal, including whether the inclusion of issues such as gender identity and sexual orientation could put some members at risk if they sign a charter containing such a clause in a country where legislation prohibits positive portrayals of ‘non-traditional’ relationships. There was also considerable discussion as to whether inclusion of ‘religion’ among the list of hatreds would require PEN members to advocate for limits to freedom of expression based on religion, which some members felt would be unacceptable.

The following was the option accepted and passed:

Members of PEN should at all times use what influence they have in favour of good understanding and mutual respect between nations and people; they pledge themselves to do their utmost to dispel all hatreds and to champion the ideal of one humanity living in peace and equality in one world.

This left open the kinds of hatred, and thus would obviate the need for any addition to the list in the future. It also protected members in centres who feel they could be imperilled by mention of status whose promotion is currently illegal in their country, while still enjoining a positive obligation on PEN members to strive for tolerance and mutual respect by all, an obligation which has been at the heart of PEN’s mission since its foundation.

With the modified Charter in place, it was time to create the PEN International Women’s Manifesto. In January 2017 the first PEN International Woman’s Manifesto dinner was held in London at the home of the late Aline Davidoff, President emeritus of PEN Mexico. Present were Caroline Craido Perez, Lisa Appignanesi, Kamila Shamsie, Rebecca Servadio, Gillian Slovo, Ellah Allfrey, Gaby Wood, Laure Thorel, Romana Cacchioli, Margie Orford, Aline Davidoff and myself.

Kamila Shamsie discussed how she’d tabulated women’s prizes. Her work pointed to the fact that, with few exceptions, every time a woman won a prize her novel’s protagonist had been a man. Almost every woman writer knows that if she writes about women she will not win awards – consciously and unconsciously the female experience is considered less profound. 

Carolina Criado Perez created the campaign to have a woman, who is not the queen, on a British bank note. Criado Perez was so vilified she had to shut down all her social media accounts as she received so much hate mail that even included threats of rape and murder. Thanks to her we now have Jane Austen’s face on a ten-pound note. 

At the dinner, it was Lisa Appigananesi who gave us the door into the document: It needed to walk hand in hand with the PEN Charter. Over the next months Margie Orford, a member of the PEN International Board and President Emeritus of PEN South Africa, and I drafted the document. 

While working on the Manifesto we also sent articles back and forth to each other from news stories that shocked us. I kept a log of these:

Women’s Media Centre study found: Male voices still dominate reproductive issues coverage, according to the WMC research. Men are quoted more often about reproductive issues; men journalists outnumber women journalists in covering reproductive issues; and men journalists quote other men more than they do women journalists.

Physical, sexual and psychological violence against female MPs is undermining democracy and efforts to end gender inequality, according to a study of parliamentarians around the world. More than 40% of female MPs interviewed by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) said they had received threats of death, rape, beatings or abduction while serving their terms, including threats to kidnap or kill their children.

Moroccan TV program teaches how to cover domestic violence bruises with makeup.

Nepalese teenager dies after being banished to a shed for menstruating. Roshani Tiruwa, 15, is believed to have suffocated after being forced to stay in dilapidated animal hut during her period.

Should it be a crime for a husband to hit his wife? In many countries this question no longer needs discussing. But not in Russia, where the Duma (parliament) voted this week to decriminalise domestic violence against family members unless it is a repeat offence or causes serious medical damage. The change is part of a state-sponsored turn to traditionalism during Vladimir Putin’s third presidential term. 

Bangladesh has made tremendous progress on women’s issues. But a new law aimed at eliminating child marriage could include a clause of “special circumstances” that would force girls who were raped to marry their attacker.

Vida, Women in Literary Arts is an organization in the USA that tracks how many women’s books are reviewed (the path to visibility, prestige and literary prizes). They have discovered grave problems in their gender-based assessment of the publishing world, which include the fact that women writers, if reviewed, are usually reviewed by women and their work is almost always compared to the work of another woman. The poet Grace Schulman, an expert on the American modernist poet Marianne Moore, recently told me that Moore, who died in 1972, is always compared to Emily Dickinson, who died in 1886 almost one hundred years earlier, instead of her male contemporaries.

At the 84THPEN Congress in Pune, India, a partnership between PEN International and VIDA: Women in Literary Arts was established to monitor gender disparities in literature through PEN Centres across the globe as a long-term project for PENBeing in India means I had to also mention India’s government’s annual economic survey, which was released in early 2018, which claims that more than 63 million women are “missing” across India and more than 21 million are unwanted by their families. “The challenge of gender is long-standing, probably going back millennia,” wrote the report’s author, chief economic adviser Arvind Subramanian, noting that India must “confront the societal preference for boys”.

In drafting the PEN International Women’s Manifesto we needed to acknowledge women’s inequality in the world and how the violence against women was also a censorship issue. It needed to have a humanist position, which addressed that lack of knowledge or, more to the point, missing knowledge. We don’t even know what the world has lost.

I feel the deepest sorrow at the loss of these girls’ voices, stories and their lives. PEN’s Women’s Manifesto speaks to this sorrow and ends with these words: Humanity is both wanting and bereft without the full and free expression of women’s creativity and knowledge. 

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Jennifer Clement, born in 1960, is an American-Mexican author. She was the chairperson of Mexican PEN 2009-12 and chairperson of PEN International in 2015. Her books have been translated into 30 languages. In 2014 she published the internationally recognised book Prayers for the Stolen