In honour of women’s history month here’s a little compilation of books telling the stories of women’s struggles around the globe. Japan, Iraq, China and Pakistan; in the present day and the historical past, but all about the limited choices in terms of freedom, marriage, childbirth or career. All of the titles are page-turners, despite being tannoys for women’s rights, and I cannot pick my favourite.
The Woman in the White Kimono by Ana Johns
The Woman in the White Kimono made headlines last year as one of the most breath-taking historical novels. Dealing with inter-racial relationships between Japanese women and American men in the 1950s, the fate of their often outcast children, and the atrocities they went through, this book opened up a different side of Japan to me. Seventeen-year-old Naoko falls in love with an American sailor, Hajime, choosing him over her family’s traditional marriage arrangement, and carries his child, going through the unimaginable in doing so. The story is told from two people’s perspective; Naoko herself in 1950s, and Tori, Hajime’s daughter, who finds out her dad’s secret after his death in present time. For me it is the form in which this story is written, where the chapters are organically braided into one tale of the hidden past of Japan, which made this book a standout. The sorrow and ostracism of Japanese women in Naoko’s situation will break your heart, but to me it is a reminder of the many places around the world where women still face similar struggles – think of the children shunned because they are born out of wedlock, the maids banished to give birth to the unwanted offspring off their employer, or the women married to foreign men, whose children are denied citizenship, leaving them unable to exercise their rights.
The Beekeeper of Sinjar (Rescuing the Stolen Women of Iraq) by Dunya Mikhail
A documentary account of the terror faced by the Yazidi people (and Yazidi women in particular) at the hands of Daesh (ISIS) in book form. The author, a famous Iraqi poet and journalist (who herself had to flee Iraq) collects the true stories of ISIS victims through numerous phone calls to Abdullah, an Iraq-based beekeeper in the mountain region of Sinjar. Abdullah is a real hero, dedicating his life to saving as many women and children as ask for his help, using his knowledge of the area and a network of drivers, smugglers and the occasional good Samaritan. His operations are dangerous, often expensive and nerve-racking – he journeys to the border every time a new person is saved, to welcome them. Both Abdullah and Dunya explain how Daesh persecute the Yazidi, giving harrowing accounts of how jihadists turn up in villages, demanding conversion to Islam. Unsuccessful escape attempts result in slavery, rape, torture, death… This book reminded me of The Gulag Archipelago and Man’s Search for Meaning, but a current version of crimes against humanity told through the eyes of women who have endured the murder of their loved ones, the tearing apart of their families, daily rape, beatings and starvation.
Wild Swans: Three daughters of China by Jung Chang
It was not the fact that Wild Swans has been translated into more than thirty languages and sold over thirteen million copies worldwide that made it jump out at me from the bookshop shelf – it is a form of memoir (my favourite literary genre) up a level! It is the story of three generations of women from one family which encapsulates a tumultuous century of Chinese history. Chang’s account of the life of her grandmother as a warlord’s concubine, from the detailed explanation of shoe binding to the stigma of remarrying in search for freedom, is both mesmerising and delicately-handled. The narrative of her mother’s rebellious career path as a communist provided me with an understanding of the roots of some policies in relation to women in modern China. Of course, as the book unfolds a much wider history of China than just aspects of these women’s lives is revealed, such as the Chinese Civil War, the Cultural Revolution, and the Great Chinese famine, but first and foremost Wild Swans is a collective portrait of female resilience and courage. In the same way that Chang’s grandmother gracefully places a fresh flower in her beautiful long hair, despite Mao’s proclamations denouncing such traditions, so too does a woman’s essence remain unchanged, no matter what upheavals have to be faced.
Unmarriageable (Pride and Prejudice in Pakistan) by Soniah Kamal
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that when a family’s fortune is destroyed by scandal and rumour, they must look to their daughters to marry well”. The quiet lives of Mrs Binat and her five daughters Jena, Alys, Mari, Qitty and Lady in provincial Dilipabad are turned upside down when they attend the ‘wedding of the year’. Mrs Binat is obsessed with the idea of her daughters all marrying well, much to a horror of Alys, who has been teaching English literature at the local private girls school, as well as some feminist ideas, such as that marriage shouldn’t be the only destination of Pakistani woman, the importance of education and the ability to earn, and a women’s right to divorce. In this retelling of Pride and Prejudice, set in modern Pakistan, you will attend week-long weddings, feast on many delicious curries, washed down with lassi, and wear bright shalwar kameez. But, most of all, you will discover how family honour and reputation go head to head with women’s rights in what is still a predominately patriarchal society. A funny and thought-provoking glimpse into the polarized lives of women in Pakistan.