PEN-Award Presentation Speech by Elisabeth Eide
Ossietzky Award 2005 to Fakhra Salimi
This is an award that certainly could have been presented earlier. The award winner has deserved this recognition for a number of years. This years Ossietzky winner has lived in Norway since she was twenty, over half her life. She has been a singular voice and has had to fight hard to not be identified as a silent victim by well meaning Norwegians, Norwegian aid agencies and feminists, but rather as someone that could help, that they could cooperate with or who could independently lead a movement. Fakhra Salimi has portrayed a variety of experiences from the women’s worlds that we, those who are a part of the “majority”, superficially thought we already knew. For the most part, we don’t know.
Norway suffers at the same time from both blindness and a strained relationship with respect to its ethnic minority groups, most recently demonstrated by the fact that our new government is expected to raise the standards on issues of discrimination, but also with a number of earlier changes. The media has until a few years ago kept to a number of advocates who supposedly spoke “on behalf of” so-called immigrants. They were men who were given a free pass and used it diligently. But all human experience shows that a culture or subculture becomes defined differently dependent on who has the last word. If you ask women they will most often emphasize different experiences and more freedoms than the men do.
And if you ask a woman who, from her first step on Norwegian soil was treated as a foreigner, different and maybe sometimes even pitied, you should know that from her – our award winner tonight – you will get answers that are thoughtful, provocative and sharp. Fakhra Salimi came from the metropolis Lahore in 1979, which today has more than four million residents, to a far away country that has the same amount of residents in total and a capital city that must have seemed like a village. She was often asked questions about her background then and still is now. And some of the questions concerned how she as a Muslim woman experienced coming to a sexually liberal country such as Norway. She felt that ignorance about the world was great, even in academia, but that the progressive thoughts, nonetheless, was widespread. I am reminded of another example: Caryl Philips, who in the book “The European Tribe” describes her first encounter with Norway. The Brit, with African-Arabic roots, is out to map out Europe, from a British standpoint. At the old Fornebu, before Schengen, she was taken out of the queue and treated hostile and at customs asks one of the workers if he thinks it is unkind to be questioned by a woman. Then he laughs so that it echoes in the hall.
It is not always so easy to laugh. The award winner has since coming to Norway challenged Norwegian politics and the Norwegian women’s movement and through this has pressed a number of sensitive issues. Foreign women who come here through marriage do not have their own right to permits before the marriage is three years old. If they attempt to escape abuse, they risk being sent out of Norway. Independent legal status, not attached to the husband, has been Fakhra Salimis concern for at least two decades, a proposal that has won much support. For a long time women’s organizations did not take this issue seriously, because they focused more on the so-called cultural problems in the immigrant population. Often her speeches fell on deaf ears. Mange ears are still closed.
Opposing ideas can be found in the debate around a multicultural society today. To stand between the opposing parties can be difficult, risky and therefore also exhausting. In a media world with a taste for the extreme, for conflict and polarizing ideas, one risks being ignored if she stands with one foot on either side: In other words, constant criticism of racism and discriminating practices on the largest community’s part while at the same time confronting repressive practices taking place within the minority groups’ environment. This has been for many, many years the practice of this year’s winner.
Immediately after her arrival to Norway, Fakhra Salimi started the Foreign Women’s Group, a network of women from the USA as well as Asian and African countries. She soon noticed that there were distinct differences in the women’s experiences, because the latter groups felt much more discriminated against in Norway. Fakhra called it a triple discrimination: “We are discriminated against as women, as a member of minority group and as if that´s not enough, also be the women´s movement,” she said to the website Kilden in 2003.
I remember well that time; I myself was new in Oslo. The Iranian-English author Manny Shirazy came to Norway to present his first novel Javady-alley. On day I met some offended Norwegian feminists who told me that Fakhra and Nita (Kapoor) had wanted to meet Shirazi alone, without them! They – along with the rest of us – were not able to understand why it was important for them not to meet in a group and therefore be easily pushed aside. But Shirazy understood and accepted it. She knew their experiences from their world. For me it was a clear reminder.
In 1988 I met Fakhra as a watchdog. I was supposed to be the Editor for the Norwegian Women´s Forum, a massive conference with approximatel y 10,000 participants. She was straightforward: were there any other immigrant women on my editorial team? No, there weren´t. But she could get some! And so she did, in addition to reminding us of the network she and other minority women created during the conference – at that they had their own place in the newspaper. It was about giving space to many voices. And about being seen.
In 1989 The MiRA Centre was born, and Fakhra became the director. MiRA means “see” in Spanish. It is the imperative form of the very and should be interpreted just as a desire to be seen, a wish from women that want to come forward, not as victim, but with individual strength and with a collective demand to the larger community, not a demand for compassion but for respect. Over the years, The MiRA Centre has worked both to support individuals and to challenged structures, and they have gradually reached many of their goals. Through The MiRA Magazine, through a number of publications, among them the book ‘Odins women color the North’ and through a continuous media criticism, this years recipient of the Ossietzky award didn´t just create a way for herself in Norwegian society, but also for others who have experienced being ignored.
Marginalization is an experience shared by many
Her publishing accomplishments are chapter in themselves: In 1995 came ‘Words in Movement’, an anthology written by minority women in the North. Then came ‘Odins women’, both as a book and as a video series. The MiRA Centre offers booklets about forced marriage, about genital cutting, about equality in the workforce. They have produced a movie that encourages young women to speak out, they arrange self-defense classes. And while Norwegian health workers examine whether it is okay to insert a hymen for young girls who want to restore their so-called purity before the wedding, Fakhra challenges girls in the most recent volume of MiRA-magazine to take responsibility for their own sexuality and break with outdated expectations.
In today’s media world we become overwhelmed by the amount of information. It is so great that it is more difficult than ever before to understand what we don´t get, what we miss. And while we before were occupied with the right to speak freely, we should maybe now think more about who has the right to be heard. The Indian scientist Gayatri Spivak has at conferences experienced the humor of being treated as a representative for ‘third world women’ at conferences in the USA. She is at the same time world-renowned for her books and can certainly eat cherries with the great as often as she wants. But she uses more and more of her time among women who don´t have a voice in the greater community, both in West-Bengal and currently in Algeria. She challenges western and other privileged women and men to recognize their privileges and regard them as loss. What does this loss consist of? It is easy to see the domestic gender debate; where men have been challenged to take more childcare responsibility to therefore have a richer relationship to their children, more worthwhile human experience. But it is maybe more difficult to recognize that the privilege some of us have to speak – and to be heard – can make us unable to understand the experiences of others, thus we develop narrow horizons. We lose as individuals and countries lose when only certain types of voices are listened to.
Now the Norwegian media is full of stories about the tsunami that dramatically impacted the world almost one year ago. The earthquake disaster in Pakistan must suffer to even be in the background, event though it is an ongoing catastrophe, even though we know how cold it gets in the Kashmir mountains during the winter. But there are exceptions. Yesterday the Sunday Review did a report from one of these mountain villages where people are choosing to suffer out the winter rather than move: Everything we have is here, as one of the women explained it. For the first time they need help, they aren´t in the habit of asking for anything either. The reporter is Mah-rukh Ali and speaks easily with women and men there in their language. Maybe the report wouldn´t have been the same quality without her.
And maybe it wouldn´t have been a special gathering without this years award winner. Because who other than Fakhra Salmi is the contact person for the gathering ‘From women to women’? It is a campaign that through Pakistani women organizations helpt earthquake affected women and children, especially those who have missed husbands and fathers.
The MiRA Centre can not afford expensive advertising, but you can find all the information you could wish for on their voluminous website, that invites you in with seven languages.
To be marginalized means to experience that your experiences are seen as unimportant and peripheral; Fakhra Salimi has both observed and experienced this. It is easy to resign, to let the same-old voice have its say, to let the conventional views remain without challenges. It seems so persistent. When we can today find newspaper articles about honor killing among non-norwegian residents, it is a sign that we are beginning to understand how universal they are, many of these problems we contend with. Then we see hopefully also how easy, but one-sided it is to focus only on ethnic and they so-called other culture, so that both gender and class sneak out the backdoor, as Marianne Gullestad said so fittingly a couple of years ago.
Fakhra, you have really earned this award. You have chosen to challenge the majority´s relative blindess and self-acceptance; you have challenged repressive practices within both the majority and the minority community. But moreover, you have through your practice challenged the missionary zeal of those who condemn the minority cultures north and south accompanied by an arcane difference in philosophy. Through it you have helped us to understand how much we have left to learn.
Thank you for your contribution!
Oslo, 19th December 2005