Through the corporate media’s electronic collage of murders, sex scandals, celebrity sightings and Pentagon-generated fantasy can be heard a constant buzz–“war, terror, security”–but who knows what these words really mean to people here or in other countries? Since 9/11, the voices of ordinary civilians, particularly women, have virtually disappeared from the public discourse on these matters, leaving us only with pundits and military experts.
Deeply troubled by this trend, board members of Women’s WORLD, a global free-speech network of feminist writers, designed a writing contest to bring women’s ideas on war and terror to wider public attention. The Nation Institute co-sponsored the project, and the Puffin Foundation gave us a small grant to cover the prizes. The contest, “Women’s Voices in War Zones,” asked for personal essays in response to questions like, “Do you live in a war zone or state of terror? Is it personal or public?” We circulated the call through ads in The Nation and global feminist listservs and websites. But we had no idea what kind of response we would get.
We got an astonishing outpouring of work: 290 essays from forty-five different countries, and not only from the expected students, freelancers and academics. We got essays from a homeless woman living in a Bronx shelter; an illegal immigrant from Mexico; Burundian refugees in a Tanzanian camp; an Iranian feminist under death threat; Americans who were becoming politically active for the first time; a Karen tribal activist; women who had lived through wars from World War II to the Congo, Lebanon, Kosovo, Armenia, Colombia, Azerbaijan, Israel, Palestine, India; survivors of acid attacks, stalkers, kidnappers–the stories just kept coming, stories of state violence, ethnic violence, domestic violence, of individual and group resistance. So many were good that the judges–Ammiel Alcalay, Paula Giddings and Katha Pollitt–decided we had to double the number of prizes. (The prizewinning essays and some others are online at www.wworld.org.)
I came away from the contest heartened to know there are so many good people out there and impressed by the way the Internet has created such rich possibilities for communication among them. And I thought of Emily Dickinson’s “This is my letter to the world/ That never wrote to me.” For these essays were like letters, from people trying to get under the radar screens of their governments and media and talk directly with one another. If only we could organize such political communication on a large scale, so the trash-talk jockeys and Washington pundits would have to compete with voices of real feeling and experience. Following is just one of the extraordinary pieces we received, from Ugandan writer Monica Arac de Nyeko.