Saturday, 19 October 2013

PEN International Women Writers Committee | Reykjavik 2013

Minutes of meeting of PEN International

Women Writers Committee

Reykjavik, September 9, 2013
The meeting, part of PEN's International Congress,  was chaired by Ekbal Baraka, Chair, assisted by former chairs Judy Buckrich and Lucina Kathmann; the Minutes were prepared by Lucina Kathmann.

The pamphlet about the history of the Women Writers Committee was passed out. The new website was introduced. An idea to create a directory of individual women writers in all areas was changed and refined to result in a call for reports on the conditions for women writers in each area.

There was a spirited discussion of the fact that in almost 100 years of its existence, PEN International has never had a woman president. How do we change this? Some of the women attending said that even if a woman is elected soon, which we all hope, it is still a scandal that this situation has gone on so long. Many ideas were floated as to how to help get a woman elected at the next presidential election. We all agreed to talk about this matter with our centers and other contacts. We would like at least one strong candidate, if not more.

The Diversity website page devoted to members of the women writers committee is now functioning again. The site was hacked this year, delaying this project. This page is for the purpose of the women writers of PEN getting to know each other through our work. Anyone may participate.

How to participate:

Choose a text in English that will help readers understand who you are as a writer, put it with a photo of yourself and a few lines of biography mentioning which PEN center you belong to and send it to Marija Simokovic:

We reviewed the standing orders of the committee. Paul Finegan from the London office joined us in this phase. We made a few changes. Judy Buckrich will circulate the new standing orders with the changes. One effect was that according to the revised standing orders we needed an elected secretary, treasurer and other board members. We have had an informal executive, which we can keep, but this is a formal structure. Elections quickly put the following in place: Lucina Kathmann, secretary, Judith Buckrich and Sarah Lawson, executive members. We were unable to find a treasurer as we have no experience with a budget, though we understand that we might be getting money and thus requiring someone responsible to account for it and we will find a way to fill this post.

Sarah Clarke from the London office then joined us to talk about using international organizations, particularly the UN. Tsung Su of the Chinese Writers Abroad PEN and Lucina Kathmann of San Miguel,  Mexico, PEN have been attending the meetings of the Commission on the Status of Women  in New York since 1996. This last year PEN was able to read a statement in a formal meeting, the first time PEN has been able to get the floor in that body. The theme this year was violence against women, a theme of universal importance with which PEN has a particular competence: violence against women writers. Getting the floor was a great advance. Sarah's professional help and expertise in this organization certainly was instrumental in the PIWWC's enhanced powers.

Haroun Siddiqi joined us in representation of the International Board to tell us that there is finally money raised for staff and other help specifically for the committees. We are invited to think of ways that the board can help us. Later John Ralston Saul and Takeaki Hori joined us briefly. Their message was like Haroun's, that now there is staff and resources to help the committees and they invite us to make requests.

Ekbal proposed a conference in Egypt for next January, this would be a case in point of a way the office could help the PIWWC and it is being followed up. Paul Finegan is the particular staff person in charge of committees.

We began the individual reports which are always the highlight of the PIWWC meetings.

He Xiangyang from Chinese PEN spoke, translated by Wi Xinwei. She said there were many literary prizes won by women writers in China, that since 1919 there has been gender equality in China.  

Clara Franceschetti, from the French-speaking region of Switzerland, talked of a subtle discrimination that persists against women writers.

Ayako Sato, from Japan PEN, said that more women are being published in Japan now. Her center is going to feature the Mexican women journalists who have been killed in their next Women's Day program.

The Icelandic PEN delegates reported that, though there is a good situation in Iceland in general, newspapers have fired seasoned women and hired boys and there have been other forms of economic discrimination. They said “Sometimes we are blind to issues in our own country.” Women are not equally represented in important literary prizes, and a new prize especially for women has been instituted. At first that was controversial as perhaps being thought of as “second rate” but now it is popular.

Zeinab Diallo, from Guinea, talked about a new project, a compendium of testimonies about FGM, which are now in book form. Zeinab is looking for a publisher.

Itxaro Borda from Basque PEN lives on the French side of the France/Spain border. She talked about her situation as a Basque writer. Her center is now interested in LGBT rights and normalizing diversity among its members. She said “We come from a macho Christian society but are now liberating ourselves.”

Nancy Phiri from Malawi, is a librarian, writes children's books, sometimes in the Chichewa language. Her organization sponsors reading groups among girls.  Women are more frequently journalists in Malawi and find it hard to have their writing taken seriously.

Joyce Caplan from Scotland is a professor of Scottish literature. Her center is making a bid for the 2016 PEN World Congress. The issue of independence is currently important in Scotland. Her center does programs for International Women's Day.

Judy Buckrich spoke of an exciting literary and artistic subculture now active in Australia.

Women from Swedish PEN underscored the Icelandic women's observation that the majority of readers are women. They said the 90s were the golden era for poetry in Swedish, many of the poets of that era were women. The center does a Women's Day program and is involved in a project for the education of women in Afghanistan.

Lina Morselli from the Trieste center is interested in the Italian language and other minority languages.

Ekbal talked about the terrible civil unrest in Egypt, which she lives in. There have been three years of turmoil. In March of 2011 some women trying to celebrate International Women's Day in Tahrir Square were pushed out of the square. The people pushing them were the Muslim Brotherhood. Morsi won his election illegally, then dismissed the only woman judge in the Constitutional Court. Insofar as the Islamic Brotherhood allows any women in public office, they are veiled and say nothing. They promote segregated schools with veiled women teachers for girls. Ekbal said, “The Islamic Brotherhood has two enemies, women and Christians.” She spoke of the churches that have been burned. “There are 10 million Christians in Egypt,” she said, “They are not a 'minority,' they are citizens.”

Berivan Dosky from the Kurdish PEN center, who was posted to Damascus and now is in Baghdad, talked of the terrible situation for Kurdish people (and everyone else as well) in Syria. Islamists are attacking and their preachers are condoning horrible things which have never happened in Syria before. For example, women are being encouraged to have sexual relations with many male fighters, whether by choice or by force, to help their morale to fight, the women's contribution to jihad. She also mentioned a woman writer in the Iraqi region of Kurdistan, Suzanne Jamal, who has been threatened by Islamists.

Finnish PEN delegates reported that in the last two years their Women Writers Committee has had an event to talk about motherhood and writing, how these claims can be reconciled in one's life. They have also had Valentine's Day events celebrating diverse sexualities, as well as writing letters for prisoners.

Sarah Lawson spoke of the history of English PEN vis a vis the Women Writers Committee, why it is that she, an active mainstay of the PIWWC, nonetheless is almost always the only woman from English PEN at meetings. This time another delegate from English PEN was present, Fathieh Saudi, who is on the board of that center, so perhaps this situation can be improved.

A long-range idea was suggested: to generate a Declaration of Women's Rights parallel to the Girona and Peace Committee's manifestos. 

The meeting lasted a half hour longer than scheduled. Hardly anyone was willing to leave even though organizers of the next events kept encouraging us.

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