Books that helped me find my feminism
Less than a decade ago, I was a little averse to feminism, did not understand the need for it (it = man-hating ), couldn’t tolerate signs of ‘weakness’ in general and women ‘cribbing about things that are seemingly in their control. While I always wanted the best for everyone hence demanded excellence of highest forms, and exercised no place for empathy, critical thinking, emotional needs and rest. I was content with the don’t ask and don’t think attitude with respect to what has been carefully and craft-fully indoctrinated over the years that the only purpose of women is to marry and carry forward the lineage by bearing children, preferably male children. If something was going wrong in my life, it has to be my fault, somewhere. In those days, my book collection was limited to the works of Sidney Sheldon, Chetan Bhagat and the likes, guilty only of the latter because Sheldon at least portrayed powerful women heisting businesses, seeking pleasure, dealing with disorders etc, which gave me a bird’s eye view of a narrative that was unsettling and liberating at the same time. A narrative that broke my bubble, quite literally and left me thinking about my blind acceptance of a lot of practices.
So, naturally, when my metaphorical bubble had burst and the process of conscious unlearning began, books and films were my only comfort, because speaking out or asking questions aloud meant looking stupid (for the lack of knowledge about this narrative) (this trait has been successfully wiped out now). There are so many books that have helped me and continue to help me in this journey that is so liberating and sad at the same time. This process of unlearning occasionally made me jump, hi-five the author/ characters (of course, in my mind!), sob uncontrollably at the state of affairs and also sob uncontrollably when they found their paths to liberation!
Here, I share my list of favourites (round-1) which I found to be easy-reads.
- A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
Set in Kabul, Afghanistan, this book takes us on a journey of two women, Mariam and Laila, a generation apart from each other, living during tumultuous times, both inside and outside their homes. We often hear the phrase, “why didn’t she just speak up? Why did she go through it silently?”. I often used this phrase myself. And, this book helped me understand and empathise with the protagonists
Mariam is married off to Rasheed, a man 30 years older to her. Rasheed is an embodiment of patriarchy and abuses Mariam over not bearing him a son. Meanwhile, Laila’s family dies as her house is bombed just as they are preparing to leave the godforsaken place. Laila who was seriously injured in the attack is sheltered by Mariam and Rasheed, her neighbours.
Thus continues the story of how Mariam and Laila become confidantes, share a husband (rather, distastefully), experience mental and physical abuse together, raise a girl child and protect themselves during forced starvation, and eventually find their liberation.
Wait, did i say an easy-read? Let me correct myself, it is not just an easy-read, it is an easy-painful-read.
Happy crying on this one! But, a must-read!
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
Set in Georgia, USA this is yet another story of female friendship between Celie, Nettie, Sofia, Shug, Squeak. This is a story of black women, men and families who have faced severe abuse by the system and each other. This is another painful read on manipulation, exploitation, abuse, betrayal. But, also, realistically interspersed with female intimacy, expressions of love, caring for others in times of need.
Tell me, despite knowing that a ritual is deeply misogynistic and irrelevant in the growing age, I still go by it, would you judge me or support me? My previous self would have definitely loved playing the role of “I told you so!”. This book helped me see how beautiful friendships and love can be, to a place where it is not about being Right but about being there.
Do leave a comment on who is your favourite character!
Seeing Like A Feminist by Nivedita Menon
Let me start by saying that Nivedita Menon is a Professor who stands with her students during protests, takes sessions during the protests thereby helping students not miss their education and also speaks her mind like no other. If this introduction hasn’t already prompted you to read this right away, my recommendation will.
Saumya, a feminist friend (who reads a lot of books!) i take inspiration from, gifted me this book when i asked her “Where do i begin?”. This is one of my go-to books when i am faced with seemingly convincing misogynistic questions/ reasons/ arguments.
If you are one of them (us) who is frequently consulted for opinions on State affairs and especially on things related directly to women, like “What do you think of sex work? But, period restrictions were only introduced to provide women rest. What does the ban on veil mean? Is this sexual harassment? Dress codes for women badminton players?”. Read on and indulge in the thoughtfully constructed arguments that will help formulate your own!
Chup by Deepa Narayan
I am still reading this and I know it’s going to take a lot of time to complete this one as it forces me to accept, acknowledge and deeply introspect things i have safely hidden. The book, as the description says, is like holding a mirror to your face, which is true in every sense.
This book is based on Deepa’s research with over 600 middle and upper class women. She makes the case that we all know of, but don’t acknowledge. Education degrees are not necessarily a sign of liberation. There is a system, carefully structured and managed, to help women remain invisible, to be silent, to be Chup, to not speak up, not question. Eventually, women started to believe that they were doing a charity, a generous act by not speaking up, by not stirring things up. (so so guilty of this!)
Since I have started reading this, i have stopped apologizing for speaking up, I was able to raise some pertinent questions at work directly (though i had to make numerous trips to loo due to anxiety), construct my thoughts and express it no matter how silly it could be. And, i hope this helps you unlearn too!
We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
This is the most easy-read as it is a book-length essay of Adichie’s speech delivered at a TEDx conference. She makes the point on how Being a Feminist is not an insult and must instead be embraced by all.
Here is an excerpt I like
“We teach girls to shrink themselves. To make themselves smaller. We say to girls “You can have ambition. But, not too much. You should aim to be successful. But, not too successful. Otherwise, you will threaten the man.” Because i am female, i am expected to aspire to marriage. I am expected to make life choices always keeping in mind that Marriage is the most important. Now, Marriage can be a source of joy and love and mutual support. But, why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage and we don’t teach boys the same?”
Isn’t this the story of almost every girl we know?
The Liberation of Sita by Volga
In a country, where Ramayana is THE holy book, just the existence of a powerful subversion in itself is revolutionary. There are many women whose story is untold and are limited to binaries of beauty and chastity. In Volga’s retelling, Sita after being abandoned by Rama, in her journey, meets Surpanakha, Renuka, Urmila, Ahalya who have all broken free from those binaries.
Also Read: 5 Reasons Why Sisterhood Is Super Amazing
This read is so refreshing especially because mythologies have mostly portrayed women being jealous of each other, telling each other how to be womanly etc and Volga’s book promotes sisterhood. When we read the holy version, we’d never even want to be in that era, ever. But, when we read this version, we just want to have a chat in those fields with these women and explore what it means to be in a certain way, together.
Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution by Mona Eltahawy
This book is based on Mona’s experiences in Egypt, where she grew up and wore the headscarf for 9 years by her own choice before rebelling against it. In November 2011, during street clashes between protestors and Cairo security forces, she was beaten by the Police until her left hand and right arm were broken and sexually assaulted. This book is an expansion of her article “Why do they hate us?” where they indicates Muslim men and us is women. Headscarves and Hymens, as the title suggests are the two holy things a woman must stick to in Egypt lest they upset God and moral police and face their wrath.
Feminism is about respecting choice. But, what if that choice was based on the only option available? Especially when the other includes violence, torture, rape. It is also important to understand that this book was published when she was no longer in Cairo. Would she be able to do the same while in Cairo? Is it fair that her fellow Muslim women from Cairo refuse to accept her liberation path? (Watch Mona Eltahawy Interview Here)
Also Read: Samit Basu on Why Am I A Feminist
So, these are my seven recommendations based on my limited exposure to books and my love for embracing feminism through stories of liberation. I thoroughly enjoyed reading these whilst experiencing a wide array of emotions, all for better!
And, of course there are classics like The Second Sex, A Room of One’s Own, A Vindication of the Rights Woman, etc, I could never finish them fully. Partly because the language is difficult to comprehend, partly because they demand deeper reflections and partly because I couldn’t relate to the places, times and conditioning. So, instead of pushing myself to finish them sooner, I resorted to picking quotes and adorning my walls.
“I do not wish women to have power over men; but over themselves.” – Mary Wollstonecraft