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The Books By Women That Explain What The World Is Really Like

Women authors on war, surveillance, politics, and the refugee crisis.

Posted on March 8, 2019, at 7:35 a.m. ET

Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China


On the eve of International Women's Day in 2015, five Chinese women — Li Maizi, Zheng Churan, Wei Tingting, Wu Rongrong, and Wang Man — were handing out stickers against sexual harassment when they were arrested by police. At the time of their detention, Chinese President Xi Jinping was scheduled to host a United Nations summit on women’s rights in New York.

Leta Hong Fincher’s Betraying Big Brother captures the irony of having an international day dedicated to women’s rights when governments across the world work at stifling those rights. Fincher interviews the five arrested Chinese women after their 37-day-long detainment, and discovers how a surveillance state tried to stamp out feminism, even though the women forged their politics through personal experiences with domestic, sexual, and, later, police violence.

The two most important strands in Fincher’s book are women’s persistence in the face of hypermasculine leadership — the “patriarchal authoritarian” Xi's strong-man-of-the-family brand of politics resembles that of Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, and Narendra Modi — and the role of the internet in connecting feminist movements across the world. 

While Western media described the #MeToo movement as slow to take off in China, Fincher points out the difficulty of sustaining a hashtag campaign in a country where there is no internet freedom, and where women’s stories of abuse are routinely censored and removed within minutes of being uploaded. 
The five detained women, who later came to be known as #TheFeministFive, were ultimately released when a global campaign for their freedom took off online.

Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening

Simon and Schuster

What does a win for feminism look like? When a decadeslong ban on Saudi women driving was finally lifted last year, some believed “the golden age” for Saudi women was here. But the activists who first rallied for this change are still living in fear — among them is Manal al-Sharif, author of Daring to Drive — A Saudi Woman’s Awakening, who first recorded herself driving in Saudi Arabia in 2011, and who in November 2018 quit Twitter, stating the platform was now controlled by pro-government trolls.

In her memoir, Sharif paints a stark and complicated picture of the desperation of living under Saudi Arabia's system of male guardianship, that gives a woman's husband and male relatives the right to make critical decisions on her behalf. Inside the Saudi Arabian Oil Company compound where Sharif works, she is a respected computer technician and lives an almost independent life unfettered by the strict rules of male guardianship. But outside the compound, like other women, she is reliant on a secret network of male taxi drivers to get around. It is not easy being a woman passenger, or even a pedestrian. Some drivers record women’s conversations and report them to their male guardians. Others molest women on the streets.

When Sharif finally decides to take the wheel and drive outside the company's compound, she also uploads a YouTube video of herself doing it. What follows is a harrowing tale of imprisonment, separation from her family and ultimately, a life in exile. Women activists in Saudi Arabia are still being punished for demanding their rights. Some women might be driving and playing football in Saudi Arabia, but feminism is not winning.

The Last Girl: My Story of Captivity, and My Fight Against the Islamic State

Penguin Random House


Murad is a Yazidi woman and a survivor of the ISIS genocide in Iraq. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018 for her efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict. In her memoir, The Last Girl: My Story of Captivity, and My Fight Against the Islamic State, Murad recounts her childhood, the history of the Yazidi people, the political strife in Iraq which always seemed too far from home until it wasn’t — and the absolute horror of ISIS slave camps.

The Last Girl is a warning of the ways in which war robs women of agency. Not just through hunger, poverty, brutal physical and sexual violence, but also by taking away women’s right to tell their own stories: In the book, as Murad finally escapes, she is made to recount the ordeal of her enslavement and escape by Kurdish officials on camera. Her story, which is used to score political points between rival Kurdish factions, only endangers her and those closest to her.

The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan

Beacon Press

Where were you when Benazir Bhutto was assassinated? In The Upstairs Wife journalist Rafia Zakaria captures the truest way we make sense of a tumultuous world — by tracing the line of our own lives and personal histories in the big picture.

To a young Zakaria, the fates of Pakistan’s first woman prime minister Bhutto and Zakaria's aunt Amina appear intertwined. The Harvard- and Oxford-educated Bhutto appears to herald a new dawn for Pakistan’s women. But as the years pass and she is accused of conspiracies and corruption, Bhutto’s appeal as a leader begins to lose sheen — ultimately, she must marry Asif Ali Zardari in a bid for respectability.

Amina meanwhile is the first woman in Zakaria’s family to attend college when a war erupts between what was then East and West Pakistan, modern day Bangladesh and Pakistan. As Pakistan forfeits Bangladesh in “the first and only public surrender in modern military history,” Amina accepts a marriage proposal from Sohail. A decade goes by; Amina cannot have children, and Sohail marries another woman — consigning his first wife to the room upstairs — the room that Zakaria later inherits. In the book, the year that a distraught Aunt Amina returns to her father’s house, Bhutto returns to her father’s home, too, after seven years of self-imposed exile from Pakistan. On Dec. 27, 2007, when Zakaria is a young girl waiting to hear whether Amina’s husband is still alive, she learns of another truth that seems to make the world stop: Bhutto has been assassinated.

The Best We Could Do

Abrams ComicArts

To imagine the scale of what it means to lose your home and your entire world, the loss must be broken down into details: "Was it hot, were you hungry, how did the sand feel on your feet after you lost your slippers in the boat?" These are the questions Thi Bui asks her parents as she interviews them about the Vietnam War, their migration to America and how they made the best life they could for their three young children, despite the circumstances. 

Those circumstances — the journey of refugees through poverty, hunger, alienation, and despair — are narratives that continue to haunt news cycles today. Thi Bui’s graphic memoir alternates between the present (in which she is pregnant with her son) and the past, in which her parents struggle to embrace their new realities. The Best We Could Do has been compared to Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis for its heart-wrenchingly honest, sometimes humorous, and deeply personal account of what it means to rescue life from the debris of loss.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.