The Violent Assault of ZP Dala is an Attack on the Right to Freedom of Expression

26 Mar 2015
The Violent Assault of ZP Dala is an Attack on the Right to Freedom of Expression

Last week South African author Zainub Priya Dala was driven off the road by three men who held a knife to her throat, called her “Rushdie’s bitch” and hit her in the face with a brick, breaking her cheekbone. This attack came after Dala named British author Salman Rushdie in a list of authors whose writing she admired when speaking at a Time of the Writer festival event in KwaZulu-Natal.

Local writers have joined PEN South Africa in standing in solidarity with Dala and speaking out against this violent intimidation in an open letter: “This type of violence – cowardly, sinister, designed to create fear in the moment and silence in the future – is the sort that simultaneously demonstrates its terror of words and its desire to obliterate them.”

PEN SA President Margie Orford commented on the nature of the attack: “What is particularly shocking is the direct physical violence, which is quite new. It brought to mind the attacks in the Middle East and Europe, where people use physical displays of violence against someone they don’t agree with. It was chilling.”

Salman Rushdie
Image courtesy Salman Rushdie.

Rushdie has tweeted in support of Dala, calling the attack “appalling and disgraceful.” While this incident is isolated in a local context, it should also be acknowledged as the latest in what has now become a 27-year string of attacks against Rushdie and those that support him.

The following entry in PEN International’s history of the organisation looks at what has been termed “The Rushdie affair”:

“During the 1980s and 1990s, PEN’s work on behalf of persecuted and imprisoned writers became well known by the international community, amongst writers and governments alike. In 1989 Salman Rushdie, winner of the Booker Prize eight years earlier, received more international attention then he had bargained for with the publication of his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses. He was forced into hiding after Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a religious edict: the notorious fatwa (the word entered common usage in the West thereafter). The fatwa called for the author’s death for, supposedly, having insulted Islam in the novel. Rushdie’s ordeal is now part of literary history; he quickly became a symbol at the time, as a writer persecuted for his words. PEN played a key role in the global campaign that called for the withdrawal of the fatwa, and supported publishers of the book worldwide. Rushdie is, to this day, an active member of PEN International, and the former president of the PEN American Centre.”

Another PEN International article details some of the incidents that occurred after the book’s publication. As well as the death threats and The Satanic Verses being banned in several countries, protests and book burnings were held. The Fatwa extended to those involved in the book, which included publishers, translators and book sellers. Hitoshi Igarashi, the book’s Japanese translator, was stabbed to death in 1991 and there were attempts made to kill two other translators. William Nygaard, the Norwegian publisher of the book, survived a shot to the back in 1993. It would be ten years before Salman Rushdie began to emerge from hiding.

The extension of this attempt to prevent freedom of expression to the attack on Dala last week is worrying. Dala has said that she hopes this incident will start a discussion, but that people are still afraid to talk about it: “I do believe that the dialogue has opened, and the conversation is taking place. On the other hand, I might add, is that it is taking place in a very secretive platform. Many people are still afraid. No matter how honourable their views are, they are still afraid to come out and state them.”

In the open letter, PEN South Africa addresses the impact that incidents like these have on people’s ability to speak without fear: “We have always known that freedom of expression is, at its deepest, most profound level, the right to speak without fear. It is the knowledge that sharing an opinion with the public should at best be met with passionate engagement, at worst with disinterested dismissal. It is, in its simplest form, the right to speak. It is also the right to listen and to be heard.”