Rebel Pages: Feminist Fury and Literary Protest

Earlier this March, we celebrated World Book Day across the country, with primary school children dressing up as their favourite book characters and collecting their book tokens. But how does World Book Day stay relevant to us as we grow older? Before delving into this question, let's explore some facts about the charity itself:

- It's a charity that operates in the UK and Ireland.
- Their mission is to promote reading for pleasure, offering children and young adults the opportunity to have books of their own.
- Created by UNESCO on 23rd April 1995 as a worldwide celebration of books and reading.
- Marked in over 100 countries around the globe.

As March is also Women's History Month, I looked into books that have played a significant role in the feminist movement. These books have received a range of reactions since their publishing, including censorship, due to their themes of feminism and protest.

"The Feminine Mystique" by Betty Friedan: This groundbreaking book, published in 1963, is often credited with sparking the second wave of feminism in the United States. It critiqued the traditional role of women in post-World War II America and challenged the notion that women could only find fulfillment through marriage and motherhood. While not outright banned, it faced criticism and censorship in some circles due to its radical ideas at the time.

"We Should All Be Feminists" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Based on her TEDx talk of the same name, this essay explores the importance of feminism in the 21st century. Adichie discusses gender inequality and advocates for a more inclusive and equitable world for all genders, using meaningful anecdotes to express the importance of 21st-century feminism.

"The Color Purple" by Alice Walker: This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel explores themes of race, gender, and sexuality in the early 20th-century American South. Its frank portrayal of lesbian relationships, domestic violence, and racism led to challenges and bans in various school districts and libraries across the United States.

"The Handmaid's Tale" by Margaret Atwood: Set in a dystopian future where women are stripped of their rights and forced into reproductive servitude, this novel has been banned in some countries for its feminist themes and perceived criticism of religious fundamentalism and patriarchy, including being banned in many schools and libraries in the US. All concepts in the novel are based on real events, from newspaper articles Atwood collected over the years, making it a devastatingly insightful reach into the depths of patriarchy in our world.

Censorship is defined as the suppression of speech, public communication, or other information. Literature shapes censorship by exploring and contesting its limits. An example of this is Atwood's Handmaid's Tale, to which the iconic author responded with producing an edition of the book made to be completely fireproof, as a form of retaliation to book burnings as a historically significant form of censorship. It was designed to protect this vital story and stand as a powerful symbol against censorship.

Another example of this is '1984' by George Orwell, in which the government introduces 'Newspeak,' a language that cuts down on rebellious thoughts by removing the terms for them. The idea behind this is that if a society lacks a word for a 'rebellious' idea, it must cease to exist. Censorship is a main theme in this novel, and somewhat ironically, it was censored by being banned in the Soviet Union and now Russia due to its critical perspective.

Book burning is a form of censorship that has often been used to remove opposing political or religious ideas. One example of this is the destruction of Mayan manuscripts in Yucatán, ordered by Friar Diego de Landa in an attempt to eradicate their religion. With the burning of the other codices, we lost an irreplaceable piece of history.

Now that books can be digitized, book burnings are still used as a form of protest. For instance, many people were outraged by a book called ‘The Satanic Verses,’ written by Salman Rushdie in 1988, viewing it as blasphemous towards Islam. The publication of the book caused violent protests, book burnings, and attacks on bookstores.

In 1989, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa ordering the execution of its author and ‘all those connected in its publication. Rushdie was forced to go into hiding for about ten years, and in 2022, he was attacked on stage in New York as he was about to give a public lecture. He sustained injuries to his right eye and left hand. Translators of the book have also been attacked, with Japanese translator Hitoshi Igarashi being stabbed to death in 1991.

This highlights the dangers that writers face. Books are used to spread knowledge and relay different perspectives, ideas, and beliefs, but this carries the risk of offending others. However, we are fortunate to be able to expand our knowledge and understanding of the world. 

In our digital age, digital content is often censored, which disproportionately affects marginalized communities or alternative ideas. By reading through World Book Day, we actively promote diversity in literature, showcasing the works of people from different backgrounds. World Book Day initiatives such as book donations, library events, and educational programs thus promote intellectual freedom and preserve freedom of expression. This, in turn, empowers these otherwise underrepresented individuals and communities.