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Knowledge is a Girl’s Best Friend: Five Books that Shaped my Feminism

Updated: Oct 27, 2020

By Aisha Mahal

Image via Public Seminar

I am a proud feminist. A nasty feminist. A queer feminist. An intersectional feminist. A hairy feminist. An unapologetic feminist. It took time and personal growth to get to the point where I could call myself a feminist loudly.

"Feminism is going to ruin your life (in the best way possible)" - Florence Given

From being called a ‘f**king feminist’ at school, to having people roll their eyes and complain “here she goes again…”, it has been a journey to get to this point. Often uncomfortable and at times scary, embracing feminism has not been easy, but it has been worth it.

These are some of the books which helped me along the way and shaped me into the feminist I am today.

If you are looking for purpose and drive, this is the book to read. It is one of those books that needs to be read by everyone. It needs to be on school curriculums worldwide.

Christina Lamb is a British journalist and foreign correspondent. In this book, she creates something extremely powerful. Read this book and you will never view war or our governments in the same light.

War-time sexual assault is widespread, systemic and unforgivable. However, it is an issue with remains on the perimeters when it comes to international relations and decision-making. Women and children can be found at the very heart of war zones, so why then are they ignored in the politics surrounding war and conflict? War-time sexual assault has been normalized as an unavoidable side-effect of war-making. This should disgust you.

Our feminism is vital to fighting against the injustices, violence and assault women, children and men face in war zones. If that doesn’t motivate you, I don’t know what will.

A book to make you question everything you thought about the way you need to act/look/dress: Women Don’t Owe You Pretty - Florence Given

How I wish this book had been published when I was 15. I will be buying this book for every important person in my life, man or woman, for the rest of my life. It will be the first book I give my children (if I choose to have any).

Florence Given writes honestly about how being a feminist will change you for the best. From your relationship with yourself, to your relationships with crappy men, she shines light on the importance of putting yourself first. Escaping the patriarchal, capitalist cages which dictate how we treat ourselves will be the best thing you ever do.

I read this book at a really crucial turning point in my relationship with myself. I had recently ended a friendship with someone who did not respect me as a queer, mixed-race woman. I had also just decided to stop shaving after years of despising any of the hair that grew on my body.

Reading this book helped me realize that these two things (my loss of a friend and my new-found hairiness) are healthy and revolutionary. Florence Given taught me that I am allowed to make “selfish” choices to protect myself from the oppressive narratives the patriarchy throws at us from the day we are born.

If you need inspiration to start questioning all the patriarchal expectations of how you should act/look/eat/speak/have sex/dress/shave, then this is the book for you.

A book to make you laugh, cry and feel freer: Girl, Woman, Other - Bernardine Evaristo

I finished this book and felt like I could breathe easier. Centering on the experiences of fictional Black British women, ‘Girl, Woman, Other’ is an exploration of both joy and struggle.

Through the lives of the twelve distinct characters, Bernardine Evaristo asks the reader to confront all the difficult complexities of feminism. Can you combine a relationship with a toxic male with your feminism? Whose guidance should we follow - previous generations or the present generation? Are you only radical if you stay on the margins of society?

The whole book feels like poetry and the characters feel like familiar friends. Each character’s story makes you really think about how feminism, race, class and sexuality are all interlinked.

This book is a weapon. It's for those days when men turn around to you and proclaim that feminism is obsolete: “you’re all equal now!”, they screech. Before reading this book, I would not have known how to respond. Now, I know exactly which facts to throw back in their face to explain why we need feminism, now as much as ever.

Take, for example, the fact that in the UK and the EU it is not legally required to test female crash dummies in the driver’s seats of cars. They must be tested in the passenger seat, but not as a driver. Yet, women drive cars so they sit in the driver’s seat, I know - shocker. Moreover, female crash dummies are not actually based on female proportions. Rather they are scaled-down versions of male test dummies. This means they do not represent the huge differences in chest size, hips or spine between men and women. As a result of these glaring failures to account for female drivers, thousands of women die in car crashes when they do not need to.

This is how ingrained sexism is in our society. This is why we need feminism.

A book to keep you accountable and push you outside your comfort zones: Are Prisons Obsolete? - Angela Y. Davis

I struggled to decide which is the most important book that I’ve read on the importance of intersectional feminism. I wanted to include ‘Ain’t I a Woman’ by bell hooks and ‘We Should all be Feminists’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. However, I chose this book by Angela Y. Davis.

You could argue that this is not a book about feminism. For some, it may be too ‘radical’. Books such as this sit outside the status-quo of patriarchal capitalism and therefore they make people uncomfortable. However, discomfort is the key to growth. Therefore, every feminist should have books like this in her arsenal.

Feminism intersects with nearly every social cause - from climate change, to police brutality, to the men’s mental health crisis. It is impossible to separate race, class, sexuality and gender. If you are not an intersectional feminist, who accepts that privilege is a multi-layered construct, then you are not a feminist. A white, straight, able-bodied and wealthy woman will never face the same struggles as a black, queer, disabled and working-class trans woman. Understand this before you call yourself a feminist.

Through this book, I developed the belief that you cannot be a feminist and maintain that prisons are beneficial to humans. Using imprisonment as a way to make society ‘safer’ is ineffective and inhumane. It is like sticking a band-aid on a gaping wound. To make society ‘safer’, you have to start improving society itself. Rounding up all the people who have been driven to crime because they have been failed by society is never going to create a better world. Reading the words of Angela Y. Davis was crucial in helping me understand this.

Learning about feminism, through books such as these, will change your life for the best. Teach yourself how to question all the patriarchal limits placed upon you, and then overcome them. Read all the books by queer women, women of color and ‘radical’ women which were left out of our school curriculums. Knowledge is a girl’s best friend.

If you do want to buy any of my recommendations, try to avoid purchasing books from Amazon. Instead, each book is hyperlinked to an alternative bookshop. Try to participate in book swaps and support local bookshops if you can.

Written by writer Aisha Mahal

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