I have not read all of these. A friend and I completed a bilbiography of books about the lives of women and girls around the world as a final project for a women’s studies course.
1. The Swallows of Khabul
Yasmina Khadra, the pseudonym of a former officer in the Algerian army, has written an amazing story set in Kabul, Afghanistan, during the reign of the Taliban. The book centers on two couples. Atiq is a jailer whose wife is gravely ill, but who he feels a deep debt to for saving his life. Mohsen is an educated man whose wife, Zunaira, is the light of his life. One day, Atiq and Mohsen are present at the stoning of a prostitute, and Mohsen’s participation in this event causes immediate problems in his marriage. After the stoning, things spiral out of control for both couples, leading up to a startling climax. Though the struggles of the men are the main focus of the story, I felt it still deserved to be included in this collection because everything that happens in the novel does center around the women, and the reader does get to learn a lot about how women were treated under the Taliban. One of the things I loved about this work is that it really showed that artists can come from anywhere. Khadra’s writing was absolutely beautiful, although at times the story was definitely not that way. A truly riveting novel. For adults.
Written in vignettes, “Sold” is the story of thirteen-year-old Lakshmi, a girl from a poor mountain region of Nepal. After monsoon season, Lakshmi’s family’s crops are completely wiped out and her stepfather introduces her to a stranger who claims she can find a job as a maid in the city. Soon, she arrives at a “Happiness House” in India where she learns she has been sold into prostitution. There, she is subjected to unthinkable cruelty perpetrated by Mumtaz, the ruler of the brothel, but manages to make friends with some of the other girls, allowing her to survive. Then a day comes when she must make a decision about whether or not to risk everything to reclaim her life. Grades 9 and up.
3. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
This fictional novel tells the story of two young girls in nineteenth century China who have been paired as laotongs or “old sames.” This match will continue throughout their lives through the foot binding process, rebellions, famine, and marriage. This book covers many issues, from oppressive cultural traditions to the dynamics of marriage. One of the parts I really liked was when one of the friends realizes how her promotion of society’s beliefs has led to much unhappiness for her friend. I found that to be an incredibly powerful scene, and this book is filled with many others just like it, written in See’s beautiful, compelling prose. Though it was written with an adult audience in mind, mature high school students would enjoy it as well.
4. House of the Spirits
The book centers on various social conflicts including, but not limited to, rich versus poor and men versus women. It follows three generations of the Trueba family from Clara del Valle, Blanca Trueba, and her daughter Alba. Though the novel is part of the Latin American tradition of magical realism, that is only a small piece of the story. The novel follows a cycle of violence against women that begins when Esteban Trueba rapes the young Pancha Garcia, whose grandson eventually rapes Trueba’s granddaughter Blanca. The conflicts between the social classes is exemplified with Trueba’s daughter Blanca’s love affair with socialist revolutionary, Pedro Tercero Garcia (Pancha’s nephew.) Alba also rebels against the status quo, especially against her grandfather, who is a prominent member of the conservative party. Everything comes to a head when a coup destroys the elected government and takes over the country, turning lives upside-down. Though I did not like the factual tone of the story, I did enjoy this book overall.
5. Sister Wife
Young Celeste has never fit into the community of Unity, where the people of The Movement live by strict religious rules. Polygamy is the norm, but Celeste is revolted by the idea of marrying an older man and having children at fifteen. When some of her friends leave Unity, she starts to question her place in the community, and when she is assigned to be the sixth wife of a much older man, she becomes horribly unhappy. This is the story of a young girl’s struggle to break free from a community where individuality is punished and laws of the outside world do not apply. Ages 14 and up.
6. Purple Hibiscus
Fifteen-year-old Kambili’s father, while being generous in their Nigerian community, is deeply religious and oppressive at home. When a military coup tears the country apart, Kambili and her brother are sent away to live with their aunt. There, Kambili begins to experience a freedom she had never known in her father’s house. Appropriate for high school and older students.
7. The Fattening Hut
A teenage girl living on a tropical island runs away to escape her community’s customs of arranged marriages and female genital mutilation. Grades 9 and up.
8. The Icarus Girl
Jessamy Harrison is a troubled eight-year-old girl born to a Nigerian mother and British father. In between writing haikus and reading Shakespeare, she often throws tantrums and is completely averse to social interactions both at home and school. Her parents attempt and intervention, sending her to Nigeria to live with her grandfather for the summer. There, she meets the mysterious TillyTilly, who knows everything about her, but who no one else can see. But, when she returns to England, TillyTilly’s visits become more and more disturbing, and Jess finds that she doesn’t know her new friend at all. Though this book does draw on elements of Nigerian mythology, I thought it deserved to be in this collection because it does deal with Jessamy’s struggle between the two cultures. For high schoolers to adults.
9. February Flowers
Fan Wu tells the story of two very different girls in modern-day China and their struggle with tradition and freedom when they go to college. Ming is a seventeen-year-old girl who lives in her world of books, music, and art. Yan is a “sexy but cynical” twenty-four-year old. Yan turns Ming’s world upside down when they meet and become friends. However, their ideologies eventually drive them apart, leaving each to defend her demons alone. A wonderful novel about the conflict between tradition and freedom, family, friendship, loss, redemption, and love. Ages 17 and up.
10. The Stoning of Soraya M.
In this fictional adult novel, Sahebjam tells the story of a conspiracy in Iran. Soraya M.’s husband couldn’t afford to to marry another woman, so he conspired with four friends and a religious leader and accused her of adultery. Soraya M. was sentenced to a stoning, a common practice in Iran and other Middle Eastern countries. Sahebjam has published other works criticizing Iran’s government and justice system, which earned him a death sentence. Today, he lives in hiding in France.There is also a film adaptation produced by Lions Gate.