Are women writers recognised to the extent that they should be in India? After decades of being sidelined into supporting characters in their own stories, women are increasingly now taking the reins of the narrative back into their hands. As they should be. SheThePeople, with its inaugural Women Writers Prize award, is giving women writers the limelight they deserve.
Like in all other walks of life, men have long enjoyed authority over literary arts. So much so, that they have commandeered control over even those stories that concern women.
Of course, the non-representation for centuries could be attributed to women being gatekept from education, which was considered to be a male right and domain. Women were pushed into kitchens and kept busy with domestic chores, with no time to spare for the pen.
This marginalisation continued even after women, prominently in the 19th century, stormed the male bastion of literature to lay claim to the acceptance they deserved. In the West, authors like Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte and later Virginia Woolf took phenomenal strides for womankind in literature, while in the Indian subcontinent, Begum Rokeya, Annie Besant, Rassundari Devi and other feminist-activists pedalled in change.
Ancient history is peppered with women writers across continents and centuries, who were working in many languages, but it was 1800 onwards that they began increasing in count, marking their place in the mainstream and causing visible cracks in the predominant narratives men’s writings had set.
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More women need to tell women’s stories. And the worth, authenticity and reality in these works must be given the due they deserve. Can men speak with legitimacy about what oppression feels like to a woman? Or the dynamic women share with institutions like marriage or health? Why must men feel entitled to tell the world how patriarchal forces play into a woman’s life? Would we rather not hear that from the subject herself?
Why mustn’t women tell their own tales?
When women take charge of their own stories, there is a tectonic shift in the gaze. Stories written from a male lens, more often than not, have been known to objectify, sexualise or marginalise the presence of anything remotely female in their stories – such is the liberty their male privilege allows.
But when a woman writes on women, she writes with experience and for women.
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This is the motivating factor behind SheThePeople introducing a platform for giving women writers and their experiences the acknowledgment they deserve. In its first edition of the Women Writers’ Prize for fiction, we turn the spotlight to the community that is often invisibilised, despite their magnificent contribution, in the literary sphere.
“The idea of the insignificance of women’s lives and experiences has spilled over into their writing and branded it as trivial and insignificant,” Shashi Deshpande, novelist and a prize mentor for WWP, says. “Whereas, the truth is that every single human experience is part of the infinite tapestry of the human story; without women’s stories, the record remains incomplete.”
The longlist for WWP, announced last month, included trailblazing works of fiction in English by women under expansive themes that are breaking new ground. The shortlist comprises six authors and the final winner will be announced on March 8.