'Women's manifesto' backed by Shamsie and Wood

'Women's manifesto' backed by Shamsie and Wood

PEN International is launching a "Women's Manifesto" on International Women's Day (8th March): a set of principles aiming to protect women's free expression by "combating and eliminating the silencing of women worldwide, whether through censorship, harassment, or violence".

The manifesto is intended by PEN International as a show of its commitment to continue fighting for gender equality. While spearheaded by president and writer Jennifer Clement and PEN board member and writer Margie Orford, it has been contributed to by a host of writer advisors including Kamila Shamsie, who proposed 2018's Year of Publishing Women, and feminist campaigner Caroline Criado Perez.

According to Orford, women are "disproportionately silenced", whether it is due to a lack of access or denial of education, self-censorship due to harassment, or sexual harassment, assault, and violence. "These risks often lead the removal of women’s voices and are, ultimately, a denial of their right to the basic and fundamental right to free expression," she said.

The introduction to the manifesto states: "For women to have free speech, the right to read, the right to write, they need to have the right to roam physically, socially and intellectually. There are few social systems that do not regard with hostility a woman who walks by herself.

"PEN believes that violence against women, in all its many forms, both within the walls of a home or in the public sphere, creates dangerous forms of censorship. Across the globe, culture, religion and tradition are repeatedly valued above human rights and are used as arguments to encourage or defend harm against women and girls. 

"PEN International believes that the act of silencing a person is to deny their existence. It’s a kind of death. Humanity is both wanting and bereft without the full and free expression of women’s creativity and knowledge."

Other writers who weighed in on the manifesto include, among others, Man Booker Prize director Gaby Wood, author and playwright Gillian Slovo, editor and literary critic Ellah Allfrey, Little Paris Bookshop author Nina George, and novelist and cultural commentator Lisa Appignanesi, who is this year's Man Booker International Prize chair. It was then passed with unanimity at the Assembly of Delegates of PEN International 83rd World Congress in Lviv, Ukraine in September 2017.

Principles endorsed by the manifesto include: Non-violence, pledging to "end violence against women and girls in all of its forms" and "promote an environment in which women and girls can express themselves freely, and ensure that all gender-based violence is comprehensively investigated and punished, and compensation provided for victims"; Safety, condemning impunity for violent acts and harassment committed against women writers and journalists in the world and online; Education, advocating full access to quality education for all women and girls; Equality, before the law and in promotion of the development and advancement of women writers; Access, to ensure women are given the same access to the full range of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights as well as equal access to all forms of media; and Parity, promoting the "equal economic participation of women writers", including with respect to equal pay.

Clement, PEN International president, commented: "In the manifold varieties of violence – from murder and domestic violence, to stolen girls who are sold and trafficked, to female students at universities who are rated and slut shamed on social media – one common result is to silence the voices of women and hamper the transmission of their words and stories leaving unfilled pages and impoverished literatures. This manifesto is our commitment, as the world’s largest writers’ association, to achieve gender equality."

As part of the promotion of the Women's Manifesto, PEN International has launched a social media campaign called #ReadWomen, in which the advisors to the manifesto, PEN members and supporters will be encouraged to share books by women writers. 

International Women's Day is being celebrated by the wider book trade with a host of activities, including events celebrating feminist texts, homepage take-overs and a pop-up shop.