Minutes of the PEN International Women Writers Committee meeting in Manila

Minutes of the PEN International Women Writers Committee meeting in Manila

30 Sept, 2019


Zoë Rodriguez, Chair of the Committee, convened the meeting and then reported on last year’s Congress in Pune, which omitted women from almost all roles. The upshot of protests by the PIWWC and others is that Zoë drafted a checklist to use for future congress programming to make sure women are not left out again. Some people said their centers are interested in generating guidelines for gender inclusión and want to use it as a model. The text is here.

Zoë drafted another guideline document too, a sexual harassment policy for PEN, for all its activities not only in the office but at public events. It can be used or modified by any center who wants it.


The PEN VIDA count is a very important project for the PIWWC and all of PEN. It will follow and record the number of women writers whose work receives attention either by prizes or critical review in the most important national media. Recently UNESCO has expressed an interest in enlarging the scope of and supervising this project. Since that would be in the interests of all, for the moment there are no guidelines as to what each center must do.

The possibilities for positive change from this project are great, as one can see from the reports from the Stella Project, which is a similar project afoot in Australia. Initial data indicated that women writers in Australia were underrepresented in both prizes and critical review, surprising many editors. Though the situation has not yet been fully righted, there was an immediate improvement in the numbers as editors corrected the situation. “Editors pay attention to data,” Zoë concluded.


In April there was a meeitng of the PIWWC at Bled, in the context of the Writers for Peace Committee’s conference. The minutes from that meeting and other relevant texts can can be found in the trilingual PIWWC newsletter Network/Le Réseau/La Red, which was distributed at the congress. It is also available online here.


A future meeting of the PIWWC is being planned for Myanmar in May 2020, in conjunction with the Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee. Zoë is already at work with Ma Thida of Burmese PEN.


Nadia Azhgikhina of Moscow PEN drew attention to the Venice manifesto, which suggests ways in which to use and not use both words and images. This document is attached as well. Among its suggestions is the recognition of feminicides as such.

Nadia is involved with a group that sponsors a “sexist of the year” award. Journalists send in examples of sexist language, citing a particular person’s exact quote and its date and occasion. Somehow they manage to judge these quotes and for the very worst, or at least the very worst remark in its category, be it the category of government, media etc., they create and promulgate a diploma. This idea was very popular with everyone at the meeting and generated a lot of discussion after the meeting. (More information available on request.)

She mentioned the ongoing high-profile Russian case of the Khachaturian sisters, who murdered their abusive father, a case which is highlighting the issue of domestic violence. Another important Russian case is of the journalist Svetlana Prokopieva, who faces 7 years of prison on charges of extremism from an article she wrote in which she said that state represión provoques extremism.


Zeynep Oral of Turkish PEN said that the human rights prize her group awards every year went this year to the Saturday Mothers, a group which sits with pictures of their disappeared (mostly Kurdish) children (siblings etc.) every Saturday. Previously they were allowed to do this, now the Saturday Mothers have been outlawed.


Nik Williams from Scottish PEN brought up the murder of Northern Ireland’s promising young journalist Lyra McKee by IRA forces in April of this year. A letter she wrote to her own 14 year old self has received wide circulation. The text can be found at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/apr/19/lyra-mckee-letter-gay-journalism-northern-ireland

He also said that a resurgence of minority languages in Scotland is very male-dominated, unusual because as a whole those involved in the preservation of minority languages are women.

Inga Gaile of Latvian PEN said that there are more women than men in Latvia, and this might affect what a just ratio of women to men in prizes and reviews might be when we begin to gather numbers for the PEN-Vida count.

Fatima Sillah from Gambia, a new member, said she is a promoter of reading in civil society. In her country women have little chance to publish so children have no exposure to their stories. She was interested in an international list of books for children, balanced in gender representation, to promote a wider perspective among young readers. Judyth Hill of San Miguel PEN has offered to work on an international list of books by women in all genres.

Rose Mary Espinosa from San Miguel PEN talked of the MeToo campaign. She worked with women’s groups toward the resurgence last March of the campaign #MeTooEscritores and marches against sexual abuse. Though the press highlighted media scandals more than positive action, the movement continues.


Danson Kahyana of Uganda PEN talked about the situation in that country in particular as it affects Dr. Stella Nyanzi. He presented the history of President Museveni, who started out as a hero who had opposed Idi Amin, but who has been in power for 33 years and has lost any heroic quality he may have had. In 2017 Museveni admitted publicly that he does not serve the people but rather himself. He as an individual controls ¼ of the budget.

Stella Nyanzi has made a mission of opposing him using the impressive weapon of her imagination and words. After every other line of protest failed, she began to practice “radical rudeness.” She has called the president “a pair of buttocks,” for example. She has been jailed before and is currently in jail. On one occasion she refused a pardon. It was suggested that perhaps she had not meant to offend the president. She said she did mean to offend the president.

Stella Nyanzi is an iconic figure in her country. Everyone wants to know what she will say next. Yet she pays a heavy price. She is separated from her three small children and sometimes her spirits falter. She has 9 months left of imprisonment on the present charges.

The PIWWC was determined to act during the congress. During the following days Zoë collected many letters for Stella Nyanzi and Philippine PEN was charged with putting them in a special folder. Also the posters from her appearance in the “empty chair” were gathered and signed by many people at the Congress. Danson Kahyana has promised to take them to her personally.

David Francis of American PEN, a candidate for the PEN International Board (and won a seat) spoke briefly of his ideas for the PEN Board. All the candidates had been invited to speak. Ma Thida and Danson Kahyana, who were also candidates, spoke in this meeting although not directly about their candidacy.


A special panel discussion Women in Authoritarian Regimes, was part of the PIWWC meeting’s agenda, featuring presentations by Susan Lara of Philippine PEN, Ma Thida of Myanmar PEN, Kätlin Kaldmaa of Estonian PEN, Zeynep Oral of Turkish PEN and Criselda Yabes of Philippine PEN.

Susan Lara spoke of the situation in the Philippines, with the closing of spaces for free expression. There have been many arrests and licenses suspended. The most famous case is the harassment and exile of Maria Ressa, CEO of Rappler, but many other dissenting voices are women too. The bad situation for freedom of expression was well known in the era of President Marcos but it appears to be happening again.

Ma Thida reported that after the takeover in 1962 by SLORC there was no more private independent media in Myanmar. Such literature and journalism as appeared to happen was a sham, for example literature awards to army functionaries and people who do not write at all. Ma Thida was arrested in 1994 in Myanmar and finally after 6 years’ imprisonment released on humantarian grounds. The situation is freer now but there is a steady campaign of state propaganda which still discourages free speech. Women’s literature is mostly focused on the emotions.

Kätlin Kaldmaa reported that the situation in Estonia comes from the years of domination by the Soviets, who mandated censorship in almost everything and applied an overt double standard for men and women. Some dissent went into went into hiding secrets in the texts. There are lingering taboos and some pointed and sexist remarks leveled at any woman who transgresses them.

Zeynep Oral said that in Turkey, for a long time it was leftist literature which was banned. Now almost anything could be said to be terrorism and banned, in particular if it criticizes the president, seems to be pro-Kurdish or somehow seems to defend the Gulenist movement (which has been blamed for a coup attempt against the president.)

The situation is quite chaotic. Every day there are over 10 court cases of journalists. There are about 130 writers in prison. As to what one can say, for two people writing the same thing, one may be sent to jail and the other named to a cabinet post. The economy is going down, there is unemployment, and women who work are being blamed. Women are being told to have more chidlren, they should all have at least three.

Criselda Yabes talked about women in the autonomous Muslim regions following up on the Moro rebellions of the 1970s. Time constraints brought this meeting to an end.

At the end of the meeting Olha Mukha of the PEN central office notified us that practical committee handbooks are being prepared and she was seeking helpers for this Project.

Respectfully submitted, Lucina Kathmann

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