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November 14, 2018

12 Empowering Feminist Works That Transcend Boundaries

Text by Sadaf Shaikh

A comprehensive list of books from all over the world that help navigate the true meaning and impact of feminism

If you hear a derisive scoff whenever you utter a sentence with the word ‘feminism’ or ‘feminist’, try to locate the source of the snicker. In all likelihood, you’ve encountered either one of two people — he who actually believes that ‘female’ is the ‘weaker sex’ or he who has been led to believe that feminism involves taking men down.

The feminist movement was started to help women attain equality and anyone who says they aren’t a feminist is essentially saying they don’t believe in equal opportunity. In India, now more than ever, women are championing for equal rights and have become increasingly vocal about the injustices they have suffered or been witness to. There is no better time than now to learn about how female writers from all over the world look at feminism through the lens of their own geographical differences.

We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Nigeria

Why we recommend it: Adapted from Adichie’s TED talk of the same name, this book has managed to pack quite the punch in spite of being only 50 pages long. We Should All Be Feminists has been christened the Gospel of the modern feminist because it takes a deliberate detour from the ‘bra-burning, armpit-hair sporting’ trope that those who have pledged themselves to the cause often seem to be associated with. Adichie draws up incidents from her own life as a young woman in Nigeria to highlight how sexism can go unnoticed in society for years before being addressed and how we have miles to go before we can successfully slay the proverbial monster’s head.

Words to live by: “We teach girls shame. ‘Close your legs. Cover yourself.’ We make them feel as though being born female they’re already guilty of something. And so, girls grow up to be women who cannot say they have desire. They grow up to be women who silence themselves. They grow up to be women who cannot say what they truly think. And they grow up — and this is the worst thing we do to girls — they grow up to be women who have turned pretense into an art form.”

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, Iran

Why we recommend it: The autobiographical account tells the story of a sharp-witted, independent girl growing up in a secular Iran in the late 70s, and how her world comes crashing down in the wake of the Islamic revolution. Satrapi grew up an only child in a progressive family under the heavy influence of a strong mother and grandmother. After the revolution, a repressive Islamic regime took over, forcing women to wear veils in public. The resilient Satrapi refused to give up her identity, mouthing off to teachers when forced to recite religious doctrines, brandishing painted nails and sporting a denim jacket with a Michael Jackson button, all icons of rebellion. It goes on to show how powerful female influences at home are a favourable environment for fostering a sense of self and that socio-political change is in the hands of the youth. It’s also interesting to note how the graphic novel is narrated through the eyes of a youngster that makes feminism a fairly simple concept to grasp.

Words to live by: “I had learned that you should always shout louder than your aggressor.”

Goodnight Stories For Rebel Girls by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo, Italy

Why we love it: This illustrated book takes the stories of women who have been path-breakers and presents them as short, fairytale-like stories for kids. Using the biographies of 100 inspiring women throughout the ages, the authors package these larger-than-life personalities as very real people that had to deal with problems that are just as relevant today as they were a century ago. In Hillary Clinton’s story, for instance, readers are introduced to the former Secretary of State through a story about bullying. When Grace O’Malley, a 16th-century Irish woman, is told she’s not allowed to be part of the family business because she’s a girl and her skirts might get in the way, she promptly begins wearing pants and becomes a swashbuckling heroine. The duo also managed to convert this project into a sisterhood of sorts, commissioning each accompanying illustration to 60 different female artists from all over the world.

Words to live by: “When the whole world is silent, even one voice becomes powerful.” – Malala Yousafzai

The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir, France

Why we recommend it: First published in 1949, long before the feminist revolution of our times swept the world off its feet, Simone de Beauvoir’s tome on existential feminism delves into the esoteric realm of ‘what is a woman?’ It was this account that prompted a whole generation of women to think and articulate differently and to further act upon on the author’s thoughts. At the heart of her writing is the existential thought of ‘man’ as the sovereign self and ‘woman’ as the objectified other, and the conflicts and inequalities that arise due to such a conceptualisation.

Words to live by: “It is perfectly natural for the future woman to feel indignant at the limitations posed upon her by her sex. The real question is not why she should reject them: the problem is rather to understand why she accepts them.”

The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak, Turkey

Why we recommend it: One may not regard this book as a feminist story at the outset, but Shafak’s characters in The Bastard of Istanbul are oddly empowering in their own way. The author draws a very subtle comparison between Istanbul and Arizona — where her characters reside — through the cultural values and accounts of how the protagonists are struggling to find their true identity. For instance, Zeliha opens a tattoo parlour to keep herself busy and continues her truant endeavours to defy the norms that the Turkish society has imposed upon its women. Her illegitimate daughter Asya is seen interacting with people beyond her age in a bid to rebel, even going so far as to getting physically involved with a married journalist. The strong theme of feminism and the patriarchal values that still exist, especially in Islamic countries like Turkey and Pakistan, make you reflect upon your own society and wonder about the similarities.

Words to live by: “The oppressor has no use for the past. The oppressed has nothing but the past.”

The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer, Australia

Why we recommend it: The 1970 book presents an interesting thesis that the “traditional” suburban, consumerist, nuclear family represses women sexually, and that this devitalises them, rendering them eunuchs. During the time that it was written, women were in fervent need of having a strong voice to lead them — one that doesn’t beseech them to get married, have kids and be accommodating throughout their lives. Greer’s anger was at a society that didn’t allow women to get a mortgage, or even buy a car unless their husband or father countersigned the documents. She may not have conformed to the idea of the modern feminist who is a lot more subtle in her propaganda — she once said that women should consider the idea of tasting their own menstrual blood — but she was the one the world needed at the time.

Words to live by: “I find that those men who are personally most polite to women, who call them angels and all that, cherish in secret the greatest contempt for them.”

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, Canada

Why we recommend it: The Handmaid’s Tale, now an Emmy award-winning series, explores the coming of a near-future dystopia in which women are forced into reproductive slavery to bear the children of the elite. For more than three decades, since the book first released, the image of a woman in a wide-brimmed bonnet and a red cloak has shown up on the covers of the book around the world, on posters from the 1990 film, in ads for the 2017 TV series, and even on real women at demonstrations for reproductive rights. One can’t deny the prescient nature of this book and its relevance 30 years later in the wake of Trump being elected to Office. At this very moment, one of the superpowers of the world is being headed by someone who is known to have a history of sexual misconduct against women. Only goes on to show how women’s pleas continue to be disregarded in a male-dominated society.

Words to live by: “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. Don’t let the bastards grind you down.”

Headscarves & Hymens by Mona Eltahawy, Egypt

Why we recommend it: The Egyptian-American journalist and activist uses the book to take on the problematic Islamist extremist force that is heavily invested in the chastity of its women, even resorting to violence to ensure they do not ‘fall out of line’. Eltahawy’s angst against this regime is also personal — in November 2011, during street clashes between protesters and the security forces in Cairo, she was picked up by the police, sexually assaulted and beaten until her left hand and right arm were broken. In Headscarves and Hymens, the author submits a litany of atrocities, abuse and the denial of basic human rights to women taking place in her part of the world. Many Middle Eastern women considered Eltahawy’s original article on this subject, which preceded the book, to be Islamophobic and an attack on their religion and culture. It makes you wonder, can you save people who don’t want to be saved?

Words to live by: “The god of virginity is popular in the Arab world. It doesn’t matter if you’re a person of faith or an atheist, Muslim or Christian  — everybody worships the god of virginity. Everything possible is done to keep the hymen — that most fragile foundation upon which the god of virginity sits — intact. At the altar of the god of virginity, we sacrifice not only our girls’ bodily integrity and right to pleasure but also their right to justice in the face of sexual violation. Sometimes we even sacrifice their lives: in the name of “honour,” some families murder their daughters to keep the god of virginity appeased. When that happens, it leaves one vulnerable to the wonderful temptation of imagining a world where girls and women are more than hymens.”

Under Western Eyes by Chandra Talpade Mohanty, India

Why we recommend it: Born in Mumbai in 1955 and having been a professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and Dean’s Professor of the Humanities at Syracuse University, Mohanty’s brand of feminism is radical and straightforward. In her essay Under Western Eyes, she criticizes Western feminism, and it’s view of women in the third world. She claims that Western feminists are predisposed towards creating a category of the “Third World Woman”, and regards women from backward countries as one, coherent group. She says that homogenizing these women erases the historical and geographical differences of these people, thereby robbing them of their identity which is counterproductive to the ideology of feminism. She insists that it is key to remember that every woman is a real, breathing subject and comes with her own set of idiosyncrasies, a topic that is widely elaborated upon in her follow-up book Feminism Without Borders.

Words to live by: “Sisterhood cannot be assumed on the basis of gender; it must be forged in concrete historical and political practice and analysis.”

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf, United Kingdom

Why we recommend it: Although this essay was published by the celebrated British author in 1929, there’s no denying that its core subject, which involves giving women their own space to thrive, is just as relevant today, as it was nine decades ago. Woolf expounds the implications of gender and claims that without financial means and a room of their own, women are not able to let their creativity and genius run free. To exemplify this theory, Woolf creates an imaginary character: Shakespeare’s sister. She gives this character a talent that is on the same scale as that of Shakespeare’s, but her story is not one of success. Instead, she commits suicide, infinitely frustrated by her inability to express her genius in the male-dominated world in which she lives.

Words to live by: “Women have served all these centuries as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of a man at twice its natural size.”

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, United States

Why we recommend it:  The only novel to have been written by Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar was published one month before the poet killed herself at the age of  30. The story follows a young woman, Esther Greenwood, through a mental breakdown, suicide attempt, and electric shock therapy in a hospital.  While the novel doesn’t come across as a feminist work in the literal sense of the concept, it has been labelled one not because it was written by a feminist, but because it dealt with feminist issues of power, the sexual double standard, the quest for identity and the demands of nurturing. For example, the character laments the demand placed on women to be natural mothers or nurturers and feels as if she will have to give up herself if she decides to marry and have a family.

Words to live by: “I took a deep breath, and listened to the old bray of my heart: I am, I am, I am.”

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo, Zimbabwe

Why we recommend it: A coming-of-age story narrated by a 10-year-old protagonist called Darling, We Need New Names is divided into two parts. The first part is about Darling’s childhood in Zimbabwe, and the second is about her life after moving to the United States. Darling and her friends — Chipo, Godknows, Sbho, Stina and Bastard — learn to navigate the everyday violence of life in Zimbabwe. Once, they encounter a woman hanging from a tree, her dead body limp, and are only momentarily surprised before giving in to their urges and selling her shoes for bread. The book is important because it makes the reader realise that although feminism has made a global impact, some countries and strata are still excluded from the collective whole. The narrator’s father is dying of AIDS, there is political violence (pro-Mugabe partisans attacking white folk and expelling them from their homes while chanting “Africa for Africans!”), there is acute poverty and 12-year-old Chipo gets pregnant after being raped by her grandfather.

Words to live by: “There are times, though, that no matter how much food I eat, I find the food does nothing for me, like I am hungry for my country and nothing is going to fix that”

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