Sarah Lawson reports on the 2007 Women Writers’ Conference in Helskinki, Finland

Sarah Lawson reports on her experience at the Women Writers’ Conference held in Finland in August where the challenges faced by women writers across Central Asia were at the forefront of discussions.


Central Asian Women’s Conference

Helsinki, 18-19 August 2007


The Conference was a very rewarding experience on many levels. Helsinki was warm and sunny in a last fling of the summer; the city was delightful and full of both strolling tourists and Finns enjoying this Nordic capital and its fine architecture and parks. Our conference was small enough to be convivial and inclusive in spite of the language barrier so ably breached by our translator, Denis Nazarenko. Rita Dahl and the team from the Finnish PEN Women’s Committee had skilfully organised this very rich and concentrated conference, at which about 30 of us met in the Caisa Cultural Centre and listened to panel discussions moderated by Elisabeth Nordgren. We were of 10 or 12 different nationalities; some could take freedom of speech for granted and some felt constrained in many personal, social, cultural, and legal ways. Our discussions were varied with two short films directed by Dalmira Tilepbergenova, poetry and short stories by the participants, and some funny-awful examples of media sexism in modern Europe. Finally we had a memorable farewell dinner at Zetor among the tractors and farm implements of this theme restaurant in central Helsinki.


The contrast between Finland and Central Asia was stark. We heard how Finnish women had had the vote since 1906 and women had sat in Parliament from about that time. Finland had the first woman minister of defence, and women had held every cabinet post (60% of the present cabinet were women) and there was even a woman president of the country, elected in 1999 and re-elected in 2000.


But then we heard about the situation of women in Central Asia, where the Muslim culture decrees that women shall live under many kinds of legal and social disabilities. There are rapid changes now in these post-Soviet times. The new market-led publishing has resulted in detective stories and such entertainment, but they are important first steps. The specific problems of a woman writer include “economic censorship”, as she usually cannot afford to publish her work herself, and the still worse censorship she experiences in the face of social pressures and the opinions of her husband and her family. To develop, writers need a cultural exchange with other countries, but this doesn’t happen in Kirgyzstan, partly due to the rarity of computers.


Topchugul Shaidullaeva, a writer and sociologist, pointed out that the masculine view was always dominant. Even a creative woman was always known as the wife or daughter of somebody. In the society of Kirgyzstan this patriarchal attitude meant that any praise for a wife by the outside world is seen by her husband as a personal insult! The creative writers of Kirgyzstan were very lonely and isolated, more so since the fall of the Soviet Union. In addition, as women’s writing is so undervalued, there is no academic attention, and therefore no critique or assessment, so it does not develop


Bubu Tokoeva, a writer and editor, told us that women in Kirgyzstan have been important in establishing the Kirgyz identity. Kirgyz are traditionally a nomadic people, and women sing to their children. Researchers have been surprised at so much singing! It is “folklore” but the transmission has depended on women. During the Soviet period, Kirgyz literature made progress; women got more education and had access to public life, but it is difficult for women to break the old habits. However, writers are considered prophets and literary progress never stopped in Kirgyzstan.


In contrast, Hala el-Badry told us about the situation in Egypt. After the 1968 defeat by Israel, there was censorship in Egypt. The censor sat in the newspaper office and read everything before it was printed. Sadat ended this censorship, but the job was merely taken over by the editor-in-chief. Now there is officially no censorship, but there are censors in each publishing house, and increased religious pressure is having an effect on reading committees. Religious authorities issue fatwas to confiscate books.


In Turkey, said Muge Iplikci-Cakir, article 301 of the Penal Code criminalizes insulting the state, the judiciary, the military, and “Turkishness”.  Hrant Dink and Orhan Pamuk were both charged under this law.


Bahtinisa Abdurehim, an Uighur now living in Stockholm, described the situation in Turkestan, which is known as Xinjiang (“new frontier”) in China, where Uighurs and other minorities live. In spite of strong censorship exercised by the Chinese government,  Uighur women are now writing, and since the end of the Cultural Revolution they have been able to write about their own experiences.


Lilia Kalaus, a writer and editor from Kazakhstan, surprised us with the news of 86 publishing houses in Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan, but nearly a quarter specialise in educational material and dictionaries. Serious literature is self-published or sponsored and subsidised. There was a Soros programme (now ended) enabling 200 books to be published. Women writers find it harder to self-publish, and when they do, the bookshops don’t always want to sell their books. Nevertheless, Kazakh women win awards, but for writing in Russian rather than in other Kazakh languages (there are 120 minorities).


We heard about the Global Media Monitoring Project. The news reports of 100 countries on one day are all analysed. More about this can be found at  Two German current affairs interviews were like a comedy sketch: Gerhard Schroeder was interviewed about serious political matters and Angela Merkel (not yet Chancellor) was asked frivolous questions.


Veronica Maele of Malawi gave an interesting African perspective. In spite of many obstacles, women writers are gradually making themselves heard. A major problem is lack of educational opportunities and libraries.

Vera Iverson (formerly Tokombaeva) described censorship in Kirgyzstan as more subtle than it had been under Communism. The media is a state monopoly; political debates are scripted; the papers are full of either propaganda or trash. Journalists who might have led an opposition movement are appointed to be ambassadors abroad! Although free education is guaranteed in the constitution, there is less education now than formerly, and youths congregate in the streets. There is so little connection to the internet that the government doesn’t need laws against it. (But Lilia remarks that oil-rich Kazakhstan has free internet access and people may have several computers. The sites are not restricted, but the government can shut down certain blogs or websites.)


Tiina Pystynen (Finnish PEN) tells us that world-wide at least 60 women writers are under attack for the right to self-expression. There are fewer women on the WiPC case list, but women face repression, nonetheless. Poverty and language barriers are serious problems. This conference, for example, is the first time a Uighur woman has attended an international conference.


Federica Prina (UK, Article 19) said that her organisation was founded 20 years ago-the name comes from the article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. At the moment they are developing a programme for Central Asia. The general problems for both men and women include the fact that there is too much centralised power, which means government ownership of printing and control of press and websites.


For those who stayed on beyond the weekend, on Monday there was a fascinating meeting with people at the Finnish Literary Society and FINI, the organisation that works to get Finnish literature better known abroad. Our Egyptian colleagues, Hala el-Badry and Ekbal Baraka, gave an enlightening and amusing talk (or two talks, but sometimes the banter made it seem like one) at a library about their experiences as journalists and writers in Egypt.


Ekbal has written a book, The Veil, explaining why the notion of Muslim women’s having to cover themselves with various headscarves, veils, burkas, and so on is something taken from ancient Assyria and Persia and has no real relevance to Islam. “It’s history, it belongs to the past!” She has debated with imams on Egyptian television and got them to admit that the veil is mentioned in the Koran precisely once, and then in a very particular context.

Hala has written daring novels and has covered the Iraq war as a journalist. “There is a very strange society in Egypt!” she remarked. “Sometimes you can write anything, but at other times some small infraction gets you thrown in prison.”


Many of the contributions in this conference appear in The Insatiable Furnace, edited by Rita Dahl. The book contains articles in Finnish and English, but enough is in English to make it well worthwhile even for someone who reads only English.


Sarah Lawson


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