International Women’s Day: Today and Every Day
She sits at her desk, reading lamp above her, smoking a cigarette as she reads through handwritten lines of poetry. She is Liu Xia.
March 8 is International Women’s Day, and here at PEN, we celebrate Liu Xia—along with Ayse Berktay, Nasrin Sotoudeh, Reeyot Alemu, Dina Meza, and all the women who have dared to be bold in their writings and their choices in face of the wrath of the state.
Last year, we were proud to honor Ayse Berktay, a translator, writer, and peaceful political activist in Turkey who is on trial for her advocacy on behalf of Kurdish rights—including the right to speak in one’s mother tongue. She received the 2013 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award in absentia, and on December 20, 2013 was released from prison. Though her trial drags on, she has renewed her activism and is a candidate for mayor in the Istanbul district elections this month. You can read her acceptance remarks, which she was able to send out from prison, here.
Nasrin Sotoudeh, an Iranian journalist, lawyer, and winner of the 2012 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award, is also among the 35 previous winners of the award to have been subsequently released. She was serving a six-year sentence—reduced from 11 on appeal—for defending her clients in interviews with the media when she was released from Evin Prison in September 2013. As a lawyer, she represented women’s rights activists, opposition politicians, and legal colleagues such as Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Shirin Ebadi. Throughout her career she stood up for women and children in Iran. Sotoudeh went on hunger strike several times to protest prison conditions and the treatment of her family, at one point dropping to a mere 95 pounds. After her release last year, she said “I will definitely continue my legal work, in order to establish justice. My dream is to establish justice throughout the world, including in my own country. I will work for this through peaceful methods.” You can read a letter she wrote to her daughter, Mahraveh, here.
Like in Iran, the government in China punishes families for the so-called “crimes” of fathers, mothers, husbands, and wives. Liu Xia remains under house arrest nearly three and a half years after her husband, imprisoned writer Liu Xiaobo, won the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2010. She is suffering in the hospital. Because of her continued isolation, she is battling a serious heart condition and severe depression, but is denied the right to travel abroad for treatment. Watch a video of Liu Xia reading her own poetry, recorded clandestinely in December, and read several of her newly translated works here.
And then there’s Reeyot Alemu, a brave Ethiopian journalist who, like Eskinder Nega, was sentenced to a heavy prison term on trumped-up terror charges for her articles. Her 14-year sentence was reduced to five years on appeal, but she, too, is suffering. Denied medical treatment, Reeyot has a breast tumor and numerous other ailments. On September 11, 2013, Alemu undertook a four-day hunger strike in protest of an order to turn in a list of visitors to prison authorities. In response to the hunger strike, prison officials reportedly imposed sanctions preventing visits by anyone except her parents or a priest.
Dina Meza, an award-winning Honduran journalist, human rights defender, and author, is not imprisoned, but like many of her peers in Latin America, she faces threats every day. Meza began her work as a human rights defender in 1989 after one of her brothers was abducted by security forces and detained incommunicado for a week, during which time he was tortured and accused of being a guerrilla. Meza has been the victim of harassment and threats since 2006, none of which have been properly investigated, and the harassment against her has intensified in recent months. You can read more about the situation in Honduras in PEN International’s recent report Journalism in the Shadow of Impunity.
There are so many women around the world who have been persecuted for their poetry, their journalism, their choice of partner, but have stood stronger than the obstacles they face. We honor them today and every day.