Distinguished author and filmmaker, Annie Zaidi – Ananke’s WLF2022 speaker – chats with Sabin Muzaffar about organized patriarchy, the dangers of building a culture of oppression through vitriol, violence and confinement of the mind and physical self.
In one of your interviews, you spoke about the power of literature – be it in its broadest sense newspapers and pamphlets or creative writing (novels etc.) in limited terms; and how it impacts society. While many students and wider communities alike are unlikely to read many literary works (speaking in relative terms), we are consuming huge amounts of content socially on a daily basis and this includes state/power-driven disinfo, misinformation as well as vitriol. How do you perceive this as far as building a culture is concerned especially when taken in context with the world of yesteryears – in fact also looking at it from a historical perspective – where kings, clergy and the state controlled information. Where do we stand?
This is difficult to evaluate partly because it is unfolding and we are all caught up in the overwhelming currents of social media and larger mainstream media streams. What I can say with certainty is that culture is ‘caught’ and also overtly and covertly ‘taught’. There was a time when elders and statesmen – kings and clergy, as you put it – demonstrated courage and civility. They showed us how differences of opinion could be negotiated, and even if these differences were irreconcilable, how we might hang on to our own dignity and how we might critique ideas without descending into verbal abuse. Those who read, watched and listened, regardless of our age and social status, learnt that there are expected standards of civil exchange. Now, we see little self-restraint, often very little truth, flowing from those who occupy positions of social and legal authority. There’s vitriol, but also sly endorsements of violence sometimes. If the state does not punish such discourse, the message that goes out is that violence and abuse is acceptable. What sort of culture can one hope to build in such an environment?
While women are being published, their lived as well as imagined experiences are being highlighted – to some extent – censorship is one socio-political notion that impacts women more than anyone. Gender-based censorship is truly essential to patriarchy, it is witnessed at home and community levels and goes beyond. It certainly does not preclude the written word – in fact silencing women creating content – from the likes of Nawal el Saadawi, Taslima Nasrin, Rana Ayyub to even the slain Qandeel Baloch in the name of honor – has seen an amplification in recent times. Is gender-based censorship more pervasive than organized suppression?
Gender-based censorship is organized. It always has been, as patriarchy itself is organized. I think we must also acknowledge that our silencing extends to critiques of patriarchal norms by male writers. Often this is done under laws pertaining to obscenity or hurting of religious/community sentiments. There were attempts to silence Vijay Tendulkar and Perumal Murugan too. We must not forget that the state can and does execute censorship via non-formal means, which may not be an overt shutting up of women’s voices, but indirectly, through not allowing them to perform certain roles such as jobs in the armed forces, greater representation in the police force, jobs as train or bus drivers, which have opened up only very recently. It can also fail to take a more punitive approach towards civilians who curtail women’s voices and choices. For example, community leaders may decide not to let girl have mobile phones, or not to let them travel alone. It is the state’s job to ensure that such leaders are not allowed to implement these ideas. When it fails to do so, it is indirectly censoring women’s lives.
Talking about the literary landscape, how complicit are the movers and shakers of literature when it comes to a lack of protest against this gender-based censorship, vitriol and abuse? Is there a gender link to remaining silent and not dissenting against suppression?
Hard to decide who the movers and shakers of literature are. I do think that many contemporary writers have been rather vocal in their support of women’s freedoms. Many more tend to keep their head down and not protest other forms of abuse or discrimination. Of course, there is a link between gendered abuse or censorship and other forms. A highly stratified or racialized society will inevitably be worse for women too. History teaches us that. But the state is mighty and public opinion can be dangerous too, so a lot of people who work in the arts keep quiet. Perhaps they kid themselves that they will make their protest evident through their art. I’m not sure if it works. If you disagree with abuse and oppression, you have to disagree very loudly. Otherwise, you run the risk of your work being harnessed by those who will use your silence as a weapon against those who are more vocal, to isolate and make them more vulnerable. You might even discover that once you lose the courage to critique real-life power, your art also loses its bite.
What are the impact and consequences of censorship on women’s mobility and freedom of expression?
I’ve mentioned above, censorship itself is complex and functions through several overlapping social processes. It is rarely as simple as banning a book. As I mention above, freedom is about having choices. Censorship seeks to narrow the range of ideas that are available to us, and that confinement of the mind may lead to a confinement of the physical self.
Quoting lines from a Guardian feature focusing your work Bread, Cement, Cactus, your book is a “haunting evocation of belonging and dislocation in contemporary India,” Can you share your thoughts about the female face of displacement and dislocation, examining the issues of identity, home and belonging especially in this post-colonial, globalized world of today?
This is hard to compress into a few words, but the first thing to do is to acknowledge the fact that female displacement via marriage is taken for granted and to measure the socio-economic and psychological implications that flow from it. Men in South Asia don’t grow up being told that they’ll have to leave home even before they’ve been able to make an independent living, that they will be scrutinized daily by a future father-in-law and brothers-in-law and if their behavior is found unacceptable, not only will their relationship be jeopardized but they may no longer be welcome within the new household. Women do grow up with constant anxiety and the worry that if something goes wrong, they may not be welcomed back into their parental homes. Their share of the family inheritance is often spent on the wedding and it is impossible to recover that money or to rebuild their lives if they choose to live independently later. It is impossible to over-state the psychological burden of such norms. There will never be any equality between the genders until the assumptions of marital dislocation are broken down.
Coming to a more – perhaps – routine line of questions, but we would really love to know, are there any projects in the pipeline?
I’ve just published ‘City of Incident’ and don’t have another manuscript ready yet. I’m hoping to spend some time researching the next project, and perhaps I’ll write short stories or essays or poems in the meantime.
Lastly, we are so excited about your participation at Ananke’s Women in Literature Festival. Do you think events like these can create impact and trigger meaningful dialogue? More importantly, as event organizers, what should we be mindful of when it comes to impact, initiating conversations and changemaking?
I am hopeful that such festivals will sustain meaningful dialogue. Being able to talk about ideas and swap stories is integral to human civilization. Everything we do rests on the stories and ideas put out by other people. A literature festival is a venue for examining the links between related ideas, for exploring the ways in which stories from multiple social contexts interact. How impactful a festival is will depend on how many people are able to – or want to – listen to such conversations. A society’s desire for meaningful dialogue is precious and it must be cultivated.