Why do we need a Women Writers’ Fest? I have lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked this. Surely writing is gender agnostic? Surely work is measured by merit and not gender? Surely, with all the pitched battles women fight, gender in the writing is not something they would want to carve out yet another enclosed paddock for?

But is that what the Women Writers’ Fest are about?

Carving out a zenana for women writers in the mixed gender hurly burly of other literature fests? An enclosed, safe and vibrant space where women assemble to discuss writing independently and fiercely. Where they aren’t a ‘genre’ and where they are not all boxed into chick-lit but where they unleash their works in romance, parenting, poetry, mystery, crime and thriller, business writing, erotica, speculative fiction, fitness and wellbeing, history, urban development, political issues, and more.  Or is it simply, a space for women writers to speak out loud and be heard?

The male experience, unfortunately, is still perceived as the universal true experience, while the female experience is relegated to ‘women’s writing.’

Women’s fiction has been often, and scathingly at that, been dismissed as not encompassing the totality of the human experience. That the protagonists often, and relentlessly so, are chronicling the universal human experience through the female experience is disregarded. We have had V S Naipaul famously deriding women writers as sentimental. Of course, sometimes women writers are sentimental, as are male writers and it is no crime to be so, but that is a debate for another time. It would seem though that the male experience is the primary one to be eulogised in our literature, and the female relegated to secondary position. This is not a passing observation but one that is endorsed by Hilary Mantel, who has been quoted saying,“It might be observed, it might be thought, that it was easier for us to win a Booker Prize writing about men than writing about women’s experience.” Her widely acclaimed historical fiction books, Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, were based on a man. The male experience, unfortunately, is still perceived as the universal true experience, while the female experience is relegated to ‘women’s writing.’ The Man Booker for instance has two winners in this century with a female protagonist. Anthologies, panels, awards, have all been, over the decades and centuries, embarrassingly skewed towards male writers. In Ireland, Irish women poets have signed a “pledge of refusal to participate in anthologies, conferences and festivals in which gender balance is skewed.” This came about after the Cambridge Companion to Irish Poets was published in 2017, with essays on four women poets as compared with 26 men.

The male experience, unfortunately, is still perceived as the universal true experience, while the female experience is relegated to ‘women’s writing.’

The literary patriarchal door, as a fine Irish novelist and poet stated then, keeps getting slammed in the faces of the women. What then is the tipping point? Is it when you see manel after manel at certain festivals, or you see panels with token female representation, and a discernibly skewed gender representation and imbalance.

Ground is often ceded to narratives that are implicitly male in their compass and territory at events. Panels that aren’t manels to begin with, are implicitly masculine in the topics and concerns they discuss, the feminine experience that informs the writing of a woman author is often not considered worthy enough for debate. Writing on mothering, body issues, the glass ceiling, sexual violence, gender rights, all these and more, fall into the very wide hold all of ‘women’s issues’ and the public stage is one that is propped up to cater to the universal gaze, which is presumed to be primarily male. Occasionally, a topic as blitheringly overwhelming like #MeToo might blow across the arid landscapes of the male-dominated panels, but there too you will find the conversation peppered with earnest woke men, busy mansplaining the women on the panel about what sexual harassment does or does not consist. Often times, some panels will have the token gesture at inclusion by having a woman moderate a session.

Occasionally, a topic as blitheringly overwhelming like #MeToo might blow across the arid landscapes of the male-dominated panels, but there too you will find the conversation peppered with earnest woke men, busy mansplaining the women on the panel about what sexual harassment does or does not consist.

The highest literary awards in the country, the Sahitya Akademi Awards have been discernibly gender skewed. According to a report published by Economic and Political Weekly in June 2018,  starting from 1955, and across two dozen languages, less than one-tenth of all awards have gone to women. However, since the 1990s, there has been an overall increase in the awards given to women writers.”

We see the need for a space for women where there is support and solidarity that comes from the awareness of women writing about issues that are important to them. The female experience, motherhood, parenting, the emotional burden women face, the glass ceiling they must bump their heads against and hope to shatter, the renegotiating lines of social interaction and relationships. The female gaze, which constitutes half the experience of humanity, needs to shout louder to be heard.

Women Writers' Fest Mumbai
Women Writers’ Fest, Mumbai

With the Women Writers’ Fest, we aim to create a space where a woman doesn’t need to shout anymore. Where women can whisper and be heard. Where a woman’s gaze is accepted and celebrated, in solidarity.

Kiran Manral is Ideas Editor at SheThePeople.TV

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