Publisher Urvashi Butalia of India, writer Emily Nasrallah of Lebanon and civil rights activist Irina Shcherbakova of Russia were awarded the Goethe Medal on 28 August. Every year, the Goethe-Institut confers the official decoration of the Federal Republic of Germany to honour figures who have performed outstanding service for international cultural dialogue. Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, the president of the Goethe-Institut, paid tribute to the great commitment of the three awardees who courageously and decisively campaign against unequal treatment.

Awardees Goethe-Medal 2017  left to right: Christina von Braun, Emily Dische-Becker, Christa Wichterich, Marianne Birthler, Urvashi Butalia, Irina Scherbakowa, Emily Nasrallah, Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, Stefan Wolf © Maik Schuck | “This year, our three awardees rely on the word and on freedom and use their literary force on their behalf. Language is their weapon! They give the silenced and forgotten people a voice,” said Klaus-Dieter Lehmann at the award ceremony for Urvashi Butalia, Emily Nasrallah and Irina Shcherbakova. Their literary work contains a message: “Remember, do not forget us, become supporters.” Lehmann further stressed, “All three awardees have their very own biographies and cultural influences; all three come from very different world regions and yet they are united by a common basic conviction: to fight against unequal treatment and for human rights, against violence and for equality and free personal development, against repression and for emancipation. It is the core of humanity to which these three women are courageously and determinedly devoted, to which they dedicate their lives.”
In her laudatory speech for Urvashi Butalia, sociologist Christa Wichterich emphasised Butalia’s pioneering work in publishing, saying, “She does not speak for others, she does not want to represent others, but above all to give a voice to those who stand on the margins of society, the injured and vulnerable who have no say, who have been silenced and who are consciously silent.” Wichterich continued, “Urvashi often hears comments from people in the West saying that it must very difficult for a woman to be a publisher in India. She replies that it’s no piece of cake to run a small feminist publishing house anywhere. She does not need pity. She is unflinching; she is obsessed, in the positive sense, emphatically and full of curiosity, with making the private a political issue using the spoken and written language.”
The journalist Emily Dische-Becker pointed out the actuality of Emily Nasrallah´s writing, “The uprooting, through voluntary or involuntary departure, is a consistent theme throughout Nasrallah’s work. The anguish of those left behind, the alienation of the departed in their new surroundings and the ultimate impossibility of return. Displacement is an essential part of the Lebanese collective experience and it is relevant as ever, in light of the mass displacement from neighboring Syria today.” Dische-Becker continued, “It takes courage to write about home, as Emily Nasrallah does, with both affection and honesty, to weave the intimate particularities of customs, the disappointments and sacrifices of its women into stories that may fail to pass state censors but resonate with generations of readers.”
Marianne Birthler, former Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Records, praised Irina Shcherbakova’s dedication in her laudatory speech, stating, “She has chosen the perhaps most difficult and most important task that needs to be accomplished on a society’s pathway to freedom. She puts into words what was concealed and is still kept hidden. She helps us to distinguish between experience and myth, truthfulness and lies, facts and legends. She stands by those who are looking for words to express their buried memories and their suffering; is close to them as they re-live it once again and acts respectfully and gratefully towards what she hears.”
The awarding of the Goethe Medals at the Weimar Residenzschloss was attended by Benjamin-Immanuel Hoff, the Minister of Culture, Federal and European Affairs and Head of the Thuringian State Chancellery, Andreas Görgen, the Head of the Culture and Communications Department at the Foreign Office, and by Stefan Wolf, the Mayor of the City of Weimar.
Urvashi Butalia, born in 1952, studied literature in New Delhi and South Asian Studies in London. She has taught at university for over twenty years, currently at Ashoka University near New Delhi. In 1984, she founded the first feminist publishing house in India, Kali for Women. This led to the founding in 2003 of Zubaan (which translates as tongue, voice, language), a publishing house specialised in women’s rights, gender and sociological subject matter. In its Young Zubaan series she publishes books for young people on subjects that are often off-limits in India, such as alternative lives and families, disability, death and fanaticism. Although not directly involved in politics, Urvashi Butalia is well known throughout the country for strongly advocating for the rights of minorities and for dealing with the traumas of recent Indian history. Since 1997, she has written regular articles for Lettre Internationale on women’s situations and socio-political developments in India as well as on the culture of remembrance after the partitioning of India in 1947. Her book The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India (2000) is one of the most important works on this subject. Based on interviews with witnesses, it documents how they lived through the political division of India, during which about one million people lost their lives.
Emily Nasrallah is one of the most well known writers in the Arab world. Born in 1931, she grew up in a Christian family in a village in southern Lebanon. After studying education in Beirut, she worked as a teacher, then as a journalist and freelance writer. In 1962, her debut novel, Touyour Ayloul (Birds of September), was published and went on to receive three Arabic literary awards. In addition to novels, essays and short stories for adults, Nasrallah has also published seven children’s books. Her writings focus on village life in Lebanon, women’s emancipation efforts, identity issues in the Lebanese civil war and migration. As the civil war raged in Lebanon from 1975 to 1990, her novels and short stories became pleas for help from a disintegrating society. In her best-known children’s book Yawmiyyat Hirr (What Happened to Zeeko, 1997, English edition 2001), she describes everyday life during wartime in embattled Beirut from the detached perspective of a tomcat. Although her possessions were destroyed a number of times in bomb attacks, Nasrallah refused to go into exile. Her novel Birds of September is considered a classic of Arabic literature and is read regularly in Lebanon’s schools.
The historian Irina Shcherbakova, who was born in Moscow in 1949, is also a journalist and translator. In the late 1970s, she began compiling taped interviews of victims of Stalinism and since 1991 has been researching the archives of the KGB. Irina Shcherbakova was a founding member of Memorial in 1988, the first independent, civil society organisation in the Soviet Union. Memorial is committed to shedding light on Soviet repression and the protection of human rights in Russia today. In October 2016, Memorial was placed on the list of “foreign agents” by the Russian Ministry of Justice. Irina Shcherbakova is the director of youth and education programmes, coordinates oral history projects as well as the yearly, nationwide student competition “People in History: Twentieth Century Russia.” As an author and editor, Irina Shcherbakova has published numerous books on Stalinism and remembrance culture, many of which have been published in German. Most recently, her book Der Russland-Reflex. Einsichten in eine Beziehungskrise (2015), written in collaboration with the German historian of Eastern Europe, Karl Schlögel, received great attention. 
About the Goethe Medal
The Goethe Medal was established by the executive committee of the Goethe-Institut in 1954 and acknowledged as an official decoration by the Federal Republic of Germany in 1975. The award ceremony is held on 28 August, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s birthday. Since it was first awarded in 1955, a total of 344 figures from 65 countries have been honoured. The awardees have included Daniel Barenboim, Pierre Bourdieu, David Cornwell AKA John le Carré, Sir Ernst Gombrich, Lars Gustafsson, Ágnes Heller, Petros Markaris, Sir Karl Raimund Popper, Jorge Semprún, Robert Wilson, Neil MacGregor, Helen Wolff and Yurii Andrukhovych.
The awarding of the 2017 Goethe Medals is organised in close partnership with the Klassik Stiftung Weimar and the City of Weimar. The conversation with the three awardees is being held in cooperation with Kunstfest Weimar. The evening discussion with Irina Shcherbakova and Karl Schlögel is also being held in cooperation with the Kunstfest Weimar and funded by the Federal Cultural Foundation.