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Alice Walker’s ‘The Colour Purple’ Is A Powerful Feminist Narrative You Cannot Ignore

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If you’re a literature graduate, women’s literature and black feminism are something that you would not go without studying. Writers and poets like Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Alice Walker etc. are names to be reckoned with when talking about black women’s writings’ and their contribution to world literature.

Alice Malsenior Walker, born on February 9, 1944, is one of the most prominent international writers of the 20th century. She completed her education at Spelman College, Atlanta and Sarah Lawrence College, New York.

The corpus of Walker’s work comprises of “The Third Life of Grange Copeland” (1969), “Meridian” (1976), “The Colour Purple” (1982) for which she won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and many more which have been a great contribution to literature.

“The Colour Purple” is a novel that celebrates black women who challenge authority. The story revolves around Celie and her sister Nettie. Walker exposes the prevalent patriarchy and how men dominate women. The novel is about the trials and tribulations faced by a black woman under colonialism and black men oppression and her journey to attain knowledge, identity, and freedom.

Celie’s father rapes her and she continues to suffer in silence, unable to express herslef or fight back. She has a daughter and a son at an early age and both of them are snatched away from her. She is later married off as a slave to Albert, interestingly, whose name Celie never utters in the novel. She always calls him Mr. ____.

Forced into a loveless marriage, she serves as a maid, a worker, a babysitter and is treated like a full-time object for sexual pleasure. Her step-son, Harpo marries a confident woman named Sofia who demands attention, unlike Celie.

Sofia is fearless and does not let any man to dominate her. She remains undefeated until she is forced to become a slave to a white couple – the mayor and his wife. Sofia’s sisters helped her escape an unhappy marriage and helped her take her children with her. On the other hand, Celie could never dare to do that.

All through the novel, the one thing that never lets hope die within Celie is her love and concern for her sister, Nettie. Mr ____ who earlier had eyes on Nettie, threw her out of the house after she refused to respond to his sexual advances. The sheer love for sisters is one thing that no reader can miss.

Celie describes wanting to become a man when her feelings arouse on seeing Shug Avery’s alluring naked body. The lesbian love is evident, although non-sexual, but present in moments of deep love. Shug Avery is the woman that Mr. ___ always loved and the character of the novel that Celie comes to idealize. It is only because of Shug, that Celie manages to fight back for her existence, even as a human.

The Epistolary Mode of Writing

The letters written by both Celie and Nettie are an excellent escape from their atrocities. During the time of distress, pain, and depression, writing letters became their only option. These letters are confessions of those moments of powerlessness wherein she has no one, but God to talk to. Her step-father threatens, “You better not never tell anybody but God. I’d kill your mammy.”

She expresses her feelings by writing, which was the best way to fight her depression and with this, she retained the minimal identity and freedom that remained. It is her desperation to converse with someone understanding like Shug Avery, or better, her sister Nettie, that she resorts to writing. In the last letter of the book, she addresses it as, “Dear God, Dear Stars, Dear Trees, Dear Sky, Dear Peoples, Dear Everything.” Everything reminded her of her existence.

The Novel As A ‘Womanist’ Text

Walker’s Womanism stems from her mixed ancestry. Thus, how Walker perceives the notions of ‘self’ and the ‘other’ is revolutionary and challenges the race, gender and class divide. According to her, patriarchal society and its associated evils of sexism, racism, and homophobia etc. can be only challenged by a womanist spirit of defiance and irreverence with an unshakable desire for social integration.

In her pivotal work, “In search of Our Mother’s Garden: Womanist Prose”, she defines the term “Womanist” as derived from “womanish” (a folk term in African American tradition symbolic of boldness, premature adulthood, responsibility and leadership as opposed to frivolous and irresponsible).

“Womanist is one who dares to speak out and against oppression, loves other women and upholds woman culture, is committed to the survival of the whole community, and loves music, dance, folk and herself.”

Walker associates the colour purple, an empowered lavender, with this empowered form of feminism. In her vision, a sense of solidarity and sharing enables the blossoming of society and individual identity. And in one of the lines, Shug Avery beautifully says, “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the colour purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.”

What she started was a purple streak of the Womanism movement in the history of the feminism. And, it is hard for anyone to not notice.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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