Here's A Must-Read List Of Powerful Memoirs By Women

On this International Women’s Day, here is a must-read list that shouts out aloud that you can’t keep a woman down. She rises. Always.

Archana Pai Kulkarni
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Leaving behind nights of terror and fear/I rise/Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear/I rise, wrote the incredible Maya Angelou. The inspirational memoirs in this list reflect the courage, resilience and sheer chutzpah of formidable women who have been through the most trying circumstances, and survived. They were beaten, raped, abused, shot at, brutalised, sold, burnt, and faced the worst of nature’s fury. Yet, they surmounted loss, grief, subjugation, physical torture, and unthinkable brutality to tell their stories. On this International Women’s Day, here is a must-read list that shouts out aloud that you can’t keep a woman down. She rises. Always.


I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings By Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou's debut memoir (six volumes of autobiography) has become a classic. While loving the world, Angelou has also known its cruelty. As a black woman, she faced discrimination and extreme poverty, but also found hope, joy, achievement and celebration. In this first volume, she beautifully evokes her childhood with her grandmother in the American south of the 1930s. She learns the power of the white folks at the other end of town and suffers the terrible trauma of rape by her mother's lover. However, far from being dispiriting, her story liberates the reader into life simply because Angelou confronts her own life with moving wonder and luminous dignity.

Unbowed by Wangari Maathai

In this memoir, the Nobel Prize winner recounts her extraordinary journey from her childhood in rural Kenya to the world stage. When Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977, she began a vital poor people’s environmental movement, focused on the empowerment of women that soon spread across Africa. Persevering through run-ins with the brutal Kenyan government and personal losses, and jailed and beaten on numerous occasions, Maathai continued to fight tirelessly to save Kenya’s forests and to restore democracy to her beloved country. This extraordinary story, spanning different worlds and changing times, reveals what the courage, determination, tenacity, and humour of one good woman can achieve; how as small a thing as planting a seedling and watering it can make all the difference in the world.

Also Read: What Do Women Want For International Women’s Day?

Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala


Winner of the PEN/Ackerley Prize 2014, when this book opens, we are inside the wave: thirty feet high, moving at twenty-five mph, racing two miles inland. In a fraction of a second, the tsunami washes away all her loved ones— her two boys, her husband, and her parents—and tosses her about ruthlessly till she is miraculously saved. Insane with grief, angry and benumbed by the fury of nature, it took Sonali several years to come to terms with her tragedy and to start picking up the threads of a life that had been undone. In this profoundly moving, piercingly frank memoir of grief, you live through the horror and despair, but also feel her self-generated repair and the promise of survival.

Winner of the PEN/Ackerley Prize 2014, when this book opens, we are inside the wave: thirty feet high, moving at twenty-five mph, racing two miles inland.

I Want to Destroy Myself: A Memoir by Malika Amar Shaikh (Author), Jerry Pinto (Translator)

Born to Communist-activist parents Malika Amar Shaikh, a cosseted child, drawn to poetry and dance, was brought up amidst the hurly-burly of Maharashtrian politics of the 1960s. She was barely out of school when she married Namdeo Dhasal, co-founder of the radical Dalit Panthers and celebrated ‘poet of the underground’. After the initial days of love and the birth of their son, the marriage crumbled. Namdeo was an absent husband and father—given to drink, womanising and violence—and uninterested in his family. Malika Amar Shaikh’s honest and pitiless memoir is a searing, angry account of her life with Dhasal. It’s the unvarnished story of a marriage and of a woman and a writer seeking her space in a man’s world.

Desert Flower: The Extraordinary Journey of a Desert Nomad by Waris Dirie and Cathleen Miller

Waris Dirie was born into a traditional Somali family, desert nomads who engaged in such ancient and antiquated customs as genital mutilation and arranged marriage. At twelve, Dirie fled an arranged marriage to an old man, and her oppressive life in the African desert, illiterate and impoverished, with nothing to her name but a tattered shawl. She travelled alone across the dangerous Somali desert to Mogadishu—the first leg of a remarkable journey that would take her to London, where she worked as a house servant; then to nearly every corner of the globe as an internationally renowned fashion model; and ultimately to New York City, where she became a human rights ambassador for the U.N. where she served as a special ambassador against female genital cutting. Desert Flower is her extraordinary story.


In the Name of Honour: A Memoir by Mukhtar Mai

In June 2002, Mukhtar Mai, a Pakistani woman from the impoverished village of Meerwala, was gang-raped by a local clan known as the Mastoi—punishment for indiscretions allegedly committed by the woman's brother. While certainly not the first account of a female body being negotiated for honour in a family, this time the survivor fought back, and single-handedly changed the feminist movement in Pakistan. By July 2002, the Pakistani government awarded her the equivalent of 8,500 U.S. dollars in compensation money and sentenced her attackers to death—and Mukhtar Mai went on to open a school for girls so that future generations would not suffer, as she had, from illiteracy. This is a rousing account of change and hope, of a woman who fought and triumphed against exceptional odds.

Being Reshma: The Extraordinary Story of an Acid-Attack Survivor who Took the World by Storm by Reshma Qureshi with Tania Singh (Author)

On 19 May 2014, as seventeen-year-old Reshma Qureshi left home for the examination centre, some men grabbed her and poured acid on her face. Soon she started to burn like a living corpse. The acid ate through her skin and aimed for her bones, but it could not quell the fire in her heart. Rising from tragedy and suffering, Reshma soon made global headlines by becoming the first acid-attack survivor to walk the runway at the New York Fashion Week. Now an international anti-acid-sale activist, vlogger, model, and the face of Make Love Not Scars, Reshma works tirelessly towards empowering other acid-attack survivors. Inspiring and life-affirming, this is the extraordinary story of a young girl from the slums of Mumbai, who overcame insurmountable odds in an unjust world and dared to change it.

Also Read: My Book Aims To Empower All Those Who Face Abuse: Reshma Qureshi

Educated by Tara Westover


This memoir, told in three parts, concerns Westover overcoming her survivalist Mormon family to go to college. It details her journey from her isolated life in the mountains of Idaho to getting into the PhD programme at Cambridge University. Tara Westover and her family grew up preparing for the End of Days but, according to the

government, she didn’t exist. She hadn’t been registered for a birth certificate, had no school records because she’d never set foot in a classroom, and no medical records. Her father didn’t believe in hospitals and refused to take Westover to one after she received a neck injury from a car accident. At sixteen, after her father became more radical and her brother started physically abusing her, Tara knew she had to leave home. In doing so she discovered both the transformative power of education, and the price she had to pay for it.

I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai

Malala Yousafzai was only ten years old when the Taliban took control of her region. They said girls couldn't go to school. Raised in a once-peaceful area of Pakistan transformed by terrorism, Malala was taught to stand up for what she believes. So she fought for her right to be educated. And on October 9, 2012, she was shot point-blank while riding the bus on her way home from school. No one expected her to survive. Now Malala is an international symbol of peaceful protest and the youngest ever Nobel Peace Prize winner. Her powerful story will make you believe in hope, truth, miracles and the possibility that one young person can inspire change.

Slave by Mende Nazer

Mende Nazer's happy childhood was cruelly cut short at the age of twelve when the Mujahidin rode into her village in the remote Nuba Mountains of Sudan. They hacked down terrified villagers, raped the women and abducted the children. Mende too was taken and sold to an Arab woman in Khartoum. For seven long years she was kept as a domestic slave. No pay. Not a single day off. She ate leftover scraps and slept on the floor of the locked-up garden shed. She endured this ordeal without knowing whether her family was alive or dead. Passed on by her master to a relative in London, Mende eventually managed to escape to freedom. ‘Slave’ is a shocking and fascinating memoir of an African childhood and a moving testimony to a young girl's indomitable spirit in the face of adversity.

Mende Nazer's happy childhood was cruelly cut short at the age of twelve when the Mujahidin rode into her village in the remote Nuba Mountains of Sudan.

The Last Girl: My Story of Captivity, and My Fight Against the Islamic State by Nadia Murad (Author), Jenna Krajeski (Author)

A Nobel Peace Prize nominee and the first Goodwill Ambassador the Dignity of Survivors of Human Trafficking of the United Nations, Nadia Murad is a courageous young woman. In 2014, 21-year-old Murad's quiet life in a Yazidi village in Iraq ended when ISIS invaded massacring eighteen members of her family, and kidnapping women to be used as sex slaves. Nadia was taken to Mosul and forced into the ISIS slave market. Following months of abuse she escaped—and went on to become one of most vocal advocates for the girls and women left in captivity. Nadia’s powerful memoir is a moving testament of the human will to survive and a call to action to end abuses towards women.

The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After by Clemantine Wamariya, Elizabeth Weil

Clemantine Wamariya was six years old when her parents began to speak in whispers, when neighbours began to disappear, and when she heard the loud, ugly sound her brother said were thunder. In 1994, she and her sister, Claire, fled the Rwandan massacre and spent the next six years migrating through seven African countries, searching for safety—perpetually hungry, imprisoned and abused, enduring and escaping refugee camps, finding unexpected kindness, witnessing inhuman cruelty. When Clemantine was twelve, she and her sister were granted refugee status in the United States, where Clemantine was taken in by a family. But privileged American life didn't erase the struggles of her past. In this powerful memoir, Wamariya challenges readers to redefine "victim," instead seeing the incredible resiliency that allows people like her, all over the world, to overcome profound losses and build new lives.

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Wild by Cheryl Strayed

At twenty-two, Cheryl Strayed thought she had lost everything. In the wake of her mother’s death, her family scattered and her own marriage was soon destroyed. Four years later, with nothing more to lose, she made the most impulsive decision of her life. With no hiking experience or training, driven only by blind will, she would hike more than a thousand miles (that's 1,600km) of the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State—and she would do it alone. Told with suspense and style, sparkling with warmth and humour, Wild powerfully captures the terrors and pleasures of one young woman forging ahead against all odds on a journey that maddened, strengthened, and ultimately healed her.

Things I've Been Silent About: Memories of a Prodigal Daughter by Azar Nafisi

This unforgettable portrait of a woman, a family, and a troubled homeland, Iran, Azar Nafisi shares her memories of living in thrall to a powerful and complex mother. Nafisi's intelligent and complicated mother, disappointed in her dreams of leading an important and romantic life, created mesmerising fictions about herself, her family, and her past. But her daughter soon learned that these narratives of triumph hid as much as they revealed. When her father began to see other women, young Azar began to keep his secrets from her mother. Nafisi's complicity in these childhood dramas ultimately led her to resist remaining silent about other personal—as well as political, cultural, and social—injustices. Her memoir is also a powerful historical picture of a family that spans the many periods of change leading up to the Islamic Revolution of 1978-79.

This unforgettable portrait of a woman, a family, and a troubled homeland, Iran, Azar Nafisi shares her memories of living in thrall to a powerful and complex mother.

Dear World: A Syrian Girl's Story of War and Plea for Peace by Bana Alabed

Bana’s happy childhood in Syria was abruptly upended by civil war when she was only three years old. She knew nothing but bombing, destruction, and fear, and one day, in a brutal siege she, and her family were trapped in Aleppo, with little access to food, water, medicine. With their home destroyed completely, Bana and her family embarked on a perilous escape to Turkey. Bana has lost her best friend, her school, her home, and her homeland, but not her hope. This powerful memoir is not just a gripping account of a family endangered by war; it offers a uniquely intimate, child’s perspective on one of the biggest humanitarian crises in history and is a reminder of the resilience of the human spirit, and the abiding power of hope.

Can't Nothing Bring Me Down Chasing Myself in the Race against Time by Ida Keeling

101-year-old Ida Keeling had survived the Great Depression and the Civil Rights Movement; she thought nothing could be worse. Then her two sons were brutally murdered. Justice was never found, and Ida felt like she couldn't carry on. But encouraged by her daughter, Ida put on her first pair of running shoes at the age of sixty-seven and began to chase the paralysing sorrow from her heart. Since her first race 35 years ago, Ida has never looked back! In this conversational and charming memoir, Keeling —the world record holder for the 60-meter dash in the 95-99 age group, offers time-tested truths gathered from a lifetime of watching a nation change and proves that it's easier to overcome obstacles when you pick up your feet and go.

Breaking Trail: A Climbing Life by Arlene Blum

Raised by a single mum in Chicago (with whom she had a complicated relationship), Blum struggled to deal with chauvinistic colleagues as she worked as a distinguished research scientist. She defied the climbing establishment of the 1970s by leading the first all-female teams on successful ascents of Mount McKinley and Annapurna, and by being the first American woman to attempt Mount Everest. At the same time, her groundbreaking scientific work challenged gender stereotypes in the academic community and led to important legislation banning carcinogens in children’s sleepwear. With candour and humour, Blum recounts her journey from an overprotected childhood in Chicago to the tops of some of the highest peaks on earth and to a life lived on her own terms.

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The Road of Lost Innocence by Somaly Mam

Somaly Mam was abandoned as a baby and looked after by her grandmother until she disappeared. She was then taken into the care of a man she called 'grandfather', but was treated no better than an unpaid servant. Raped at twelve, she was forced to marry at fifteen and then sold to a brothel. She endured years of abuse before managing to escape. This book is a moving account of a traumatic childhood and also the inspirational story of a determined and courageous woman devoted to helping other girls caught up in the illegal sex trade and violent underworld in Cambodia. In 1997 Somaly Mam co-founded AFESIP to combat trafficking in women and children for sexual slavery. In spite of the veracity of her claims being questioned by some investigators in recent times, her story is still considered valid as representative of sex trade and slavery.

What other books would you add to this list?

Archana Pai Kulkarni is the Books Editor at SheThePeople.TV. The views expressed are the author's own.

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