Last night, the PEN American Center, a literary and human rights organization, conferred a Freedom of Expression Courage award to Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine that was brutally attacked by Islamic extremists in January after it published cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad.
In the weeks leading up to the PEN event, heated controversy erupted when six writers pulled out of the ceremony due to objections over Charlie Hebdo‘s anti-Muslim cartoons. In addition, some 200-plus writers and PEN members—including myself and other feminists—signed a letter protesting the award.
The letter criticized Hebdo‘s anti-Muslim sentiments and cited the difference between “staunchly supporting expression that violates the acceptable, and enthusiastically rewarding such expression.” Since then, acrimony has raced across the op-ed pages of the world, Facebook and other social media, with many criticizing the letter signers as being pro-censorship.
Feminist writers have come down on both sides of the issue.
Eve Ensler signed the letter, as did Sarah Schulman. In a radio interview over the weekend, Schulman, a playwright and activist, addressed France’s anti-Muslim atmosphere and Hebdo’s caricatured depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. In response to the suggestion that religion should always be open for satire, she said, “Nobody is saying that Charlie Hebdo or anybody should have their content controlled. No one is disagreeing with this as satire. The question is do we want the most significant writers organization in the U.S. to be honoring a publication that is reinforcing dominant cultural values against a subordinated and oppressed group—and I think the answer has to be no.”
On the other hand, equally respected feminist writers, including Alison Bechdel and Katha Pollitt, have both expressed support for Charlie Hebdo receiving the award.
In an op-ed piece, Pollitt had this to say: “Norman Mailer, former president of PEN, had all sorts of reprehensible, ignorant and pigheaded views. When it came to politics, he was like a drunken uncle banging the table at Thanksgiving. But he pushed the boundaries back for every writer. And much as I dislike the vast bulk of his writing and his repulsive ideas about women—talk about punching down—if PEN gave him an award, I would just live with it.”
Approximately 800 people attended last night’s gala, which was held under tight security due to recent shootings in Dallas over an anti-Islam event. With all the attention going to the controversy around Charlie Hebdo, focus on some of PEN’s other award recipients seemed to get lost, like the press freedom award for Khadija Ismayilova, an Azerbaijani journalist, who has been imprisoned for two years. Radio Free Europe’s editor-in-chief, Nenad Pejic, condemned her arrest, saying, “The arrest and detention of Khadija Ismayilova is the latest attempt in a two-year campaign to silence a journalist who has investigated government corruption and human rights abuses in Azerbaijan. The charges brought against her today are outrageous. Khadija is being punished for her journalism.”
While Khadija wasn’t able to receive her award in person, hopefully one day soon she will be able to.
Leslie Absher is a freelance writer who grew up with a CIA dad. You can find more of her work at leslieabsher.com