PEN American Center expressed outrage today at the harassment and confinement in a mental institution of South African psychologist and novelist Zainub Priya Dala (ZP Dala) exacted in reprisal for her comments in appreciation of the writing of former PEN American Center President Salman Rushdie. Speaking at a literary event at a school several weeks ago, Dala voiced public appreciation for Rushdie’s work. Shortly thereafter she was the victim of a violent attack in which the assailants referenced her praise for Rushdie. She was hit in the face with a brick and had a knife held to her throat, resulting in a broken cheekbone. Regrettably, rather than rallying around Dala, some members of the local Muslim community in Durban, South Africa, have ostracized Dala, putting her under extreme pressure to renounce her statement about Rushdie’s work, to repent for her “sins,” and to make a public vow of religious loyalty to Islam. When she continued to refuse to make a religious vow or other statements inconsistent with her personal beliefs, she was admitted to a mental institution. A psychologist by profession, Dala is the mother of a young child and ultimately consented to go to the hospital to avoid intense and intrusive harassment at her home. She also reports continued questioning about her beliefs by hospital staff.
PEN America calls for Dala’s immediate and unconditional release from institutionalization and demands that all parties cease their questioning and harassment of her for her opinions and beliefs. It calls upon all competent South African authorities, including President Zuma, the courts, and the police, to ensure Ms. Dala’s safety and to prevent reprisals against her freedom of expression and thought. “It is terrifying that in an open democracy like South Africa an individual could be taken to a mental institution for voicing their opinions about an author or a book,” said PEN America Executive Director Suzanne Nossel, who was visiting South Africa and had contact with Ms. Dala. “Harassment, efforts to elicit forced and false confessions, and the denial of liberty are gross infringements of freedom of expression. In expressing her views on Mr. Rushdie’s work, Ms. Dala was engaging in intellectual discourse, an essential lifeblood of any free society. It is up to South African authorities and all those in positions of leadership to vindicate her rights and freedoms and take action against those who have sought to deny them.”
Founded in 1922, PEN American Center is an association of 4,000 U.S. writers working at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect free expression, defend persecuted writers, and strengthen literary culture worldwide.