Don’t Censor Yourself!

“EVERYTHING HAS CHANGED.” True, in that Americans now share the same insecurity and fear as people living in less protected parts of the globe.

Living in the U.S., barraged by news of anthrax-poisoned envelopes, it is difficult to be aware of any threat other than terrorists. But now as never before Americans must understand the costs of current political and economic decisions.

War always brings a danger of selfcensorship by people who think silence is the best way to support their country. This is a particular danger for women, since one of the first things to vanish in wartime are the voices of women. How many women have you heard in major media coverage of the war? There are a few poster girls in uniform bravely leaving their children— and the victims, the bereaved of the World Trade Center and the Afghani women, muffled in black burqas.

Seeing the conditions of Afghani women, many Americans have responded by feeling anything is justified to help them. We don’t yet know how much this war going to help the women of Afghanistan in the long run? If that was our government’s aim, they’ve had plenty of other opportunities; feminists have been saying for years that Afghanistan was a human rights disaster. Did anybody listen? The United States government virtually created the Taliban, with help from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, where women are forbidden by law even to learn how to drive.

During a war, voices for peace—or even of moderation—are often called traitors, and women are considered unqualified to speak except as mothers or victims. And our leaders are talking of a “new Cold War” that will last many years. I am old enough to remember the First Cold War. I remember the way we kids were terrorized by air raid drills; the sirens would scream and we would have to kneel against the wall in the school basement or get under our desks. This was called “civil defense,” as in “homeland defense.” Anybody who watched TV knew how much your desk would , protect you from a nuclear attack. But nobody said so, for this was the McCarthy era and you weren’t supposed to think for yourself.

Now the repression is starting again. Listening in on privileged conversations between a prisoner and his or her lawyer. Secret military tribunals. The limitations on war news released to the national media, and the media’s own willingness to self-censor. Censorship is an enemy of the very democratic values the current military effort is supposed to defend.

The organization of which I’m president, the Women’s World Network for Rights, Literature and Development (www.wworld.org), deals with gender and censorship. We are tracking the global and local effects of the “war on terrorism” on feminists’ freedom of speech and organization. Some danger signs already noted:

Women in Black is a global feminist network of local women who organize weekly vigils against war, dressed in black. The idea started in Israel, spread to Serbia when war began in the former Yugoslavia, and has since been adopted in other countries. The Israeli and Serbian groups were nominated this year for the Nobel Peace Prize. Yet on Sept. 24, Kate Raphael, a member of Women in Black in San Francisco, was called by the FBI and asked to come in for questioning about whom she knew in the Middle East. Is it possible that the FBI is unaware of the deep contempt all religious fundamentalists have for women? Or are they simply using the “war against terrorism” to fish for information about their old enemy, the peace movement?

Look at the uproar about Susan Sontag’s comparatively mild criticisms in The New Yorker and Barbara Kingsolver’s San Francisco Chronicle op-eds against the rightwing misuse of patriotism. In Canada, Sunera Thobani, a women ‘s studies professor at the University of British Columbia, made a speech at a Vancouver conference on violence against women for which she was trashed in the press as a “hate-monger.” While she had expressed grief for the World Trade Center victims and solidarity with the women of Afghanistan, she also addressed the history of US. foreign policy in Africa, Asia and Latin America and said the result of this war would be an increase in violence against women.

Such attacks are designed to create an atmosphere of intimidation in which it becomes difficult or impossible for women to speak out critically.

You can evade censorship by going outside regular media channels; websites like www.commondreams.org, www.alternet.org, and www.peacewomen.org are alternate sources of information. Fight censorship by speaking up, no matter what your opinion. Write letters to legislators and to the papers. Call the media. Most important of all, talk to your neighbors and friends about politics. The women of Afghanistan lost their public voice; let’s not let the “war on terrorism” take ours.

Meredith Tax is the author of The Rising of the Women: Feminist Solidarity and Class Conflict, 1880-1917 (1980), two historical novels, Rivington Street (1982)and Union Square (1988), and a children’s book, Families (1981).