Last updated 10/08/2021.
I read so many books about human rights. And when I say ‘books about human rights,’ I don’t mean so-called ‘feminist’ tomes about catcalling and manspreading (although the younger Dani read those as well).
When I read books about human rights and women’s rights, I’m reading about women being sold into slavery, having their genitals cut up and being forced to marry men three times their age.
So, with that said, I’ve compiled a list of 11 books about human rights that you absolutely must read if you consider yourself to be a feminist or champion of women’s rights.
I have read each and every one of these books (some multiple times), and find them all to be incredibly gripping, disturbing, and most importantly educational.
11 Books About Human Rights Every Feminist Should Read
1. Mayada: Daughter of Iraq – Jean Sasson
Books about prison don’t usually interest me as I find them quite monotonous (with the exceptions of Marching Powder and Hotel K as they were phenomenal). However, Mayada: Daughter of Iraq is something else.
Born into a powerful Iraqi family, Mayada Al-Aksari led a privileged life. Saddam Hussein himself was a fan of her writing, and invited her into his home on multiple occasions to praise her and tell her how much he loved her work.
Mayada owned a business, could write about whatever she wanted, and had two beautiful children.
Life was good.
Until it wasn’t.
One morning, Mayada was arrested by Saddam’s secret police on suspicion of printing and disseminating anti-government propaganda. Thrown into a cell housing seventeen other women without any idea if she would ever see her children again, Mayada had no choice but to survive.
Knowing that it was common practice to be tortured (and even executed) without trial, Mayada and her cellmates grew closer by telling each other their stories, and it is Mayada’s stories that make this book so interesting.
Reading about Saddam in the news, we know of Saddam the monster, and of course, Saddam Hussein was a monster. But he was also a person. A person with excellent table manners, a ‘nasal but extremely polite’ voice and a person who loved fashion so much that he ‘changed designer suits five times a day.’ Obviously, none of this makes anything that Saddam did okay, but it is this unique insight that makes Mayada’s story that much more interesting than a regular prison story.
Not only that, but through Jean Sasson (who is also the author of the incredible Princess books), Mayada shares with us the histories of the most powerful families in Iraq in a way that is not only educational, but extremely engaging.
This book is a must read for anybody interested in human rights, and as far as books about women’s rights go, it is incredibly important.
2. Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town – Jon Krakauer
In light of the #metoo movement, people are finally starting to talk about rape in a way that matters, but unfortunately, victims of rape are still labelled as sloots (Google will penalise me if I spell it properly), blamed for their ordeals, and made to feel as though nobody cares. Convictions of rape are shockingly low, and in this book, Jon Krakauer examines why.
In the college town of Missoula, both the state university and local authorities have failed to properly handle hundreds of sexual assault cases, and with court transcripts, police interviews, and hundreds of hours of research behind him, Krakauer paints a depressing picture of life for college girls in Missoula.
This book will make you so angry that you will want to kill someone, but it is a necessary read, especially for anybody who doubts the existence of rape culture in the western world. Krakauer is an excellent journalist who focuses on cold hard facts, leaving his own feelings and emotions out of the picture even when it must be almost impossible to do so.
3. The Road of Lost Innocence – Somaly Mam
Something that most sex tourists don’t like to think about is whether or not the girls that they pay for sex are working of their own accord.
They believe what they want to believe, closing their eyes and ears to the truth, even when it is right in front of them. In The Road of Lost Innocence, Somaly Mam makes doing that impossible.
Sold to a brothel in Phnom Penh, Cambodia at age 15, Somaly was beaten, electrocuted and raped by countless men. She describes how girls have nails hammered into their skulls as punishment for resisting abuse or not working hard enough, and tells of the evil virgin trade, where brothel owners capitalise on the belief that sleeping with a virgin cures AIDs, selling girls as young as five to anyone who can afford them.
Somaly was lucky enough to escape her life of slavery in the brothel and has since gone on to establish an organisation dedicated to combating the sexual trafficking of young girls and women. Her story is harrowing and incredibly difficult to read, but it shines a light on the evil minds and organisations that specialise in selling people and is one of the most eye-opening books about human rights out there today.
4. Daughters of Shame – Jasvinder Sanghera
When most people think of forced marriage and honour killings, they think of countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, in Daughters of Shame, Jasvinder Sanghera demonstrates that forced marriage and honour based violence in the UK is very much alive and thriving.
With her organisation, Karma Nirvana, Jasvinder works with the British police force to uncover and rescue girls from forced marriages and honour based violence.
She travels to schools to speak to girls that may be at risk, battles with those who say that she is ‘culturally insensitive,’ and acts as a teacher, mentor and friend to the girls that she helps to escape and rehome.
Despite numerous threats on her life, Jasvinder continues to be a pioneer of women’s rights and dedicates her life to helping those who so often slip through the cracks.
Combining statistics and hard facts with her real life experiences, Jasvinder Sanghera demonstrates just how the British police need to be better educated and equipped to deal with these types of crimes, and also highlights a shockingly brutal way of life that exists right under the noses of ordinary British families.
5. Slavery Inc. The Untold Story of International Sex Trafficking – Lydia Cacho
Slavery Inc. is incredibly comprehensive without being a dense or difficult read.
Exploring every facet of sex trafficking, Lydia Cacho dissects the profession of pimps, and how war, struggling economies and organised gangs birth the perfect conditions for this crime to flourish.
From the Yakuza-controlled Geishas of Japan to the women and children for sale in Cambodia, to the trade in arms, drugs and women in Argentina and Mexico, it is impossible to read Slavery Inc. and say that human slavery was ever abolished.
Investigative journalism at its very best, Slavery Inc. is better than any documentary on human trafficking that there is (trust me, I’ve seen them all).
6. Dear Zari: Hidden Stories from Women of Afghanistan – Zarghuna Kargar
When people imagine books about women’s rights, they often think of heavy academic tomes that are intimidating and difficult to read.
While some of them are, Dear Zari is not.
Zarghuna Kargar is an Afghan woman who fled to London to begin a new life after the Taliban took control of her country.
Working for the BBC, she started her own radio show, ‘Afghan Women’s Hour.’ The Afghan Women’s Hour was a show made by an Afghan woman, for Afghan women.
As radio is the main source of mass communication in Afghanistan, with homes even in the most remote villages owning radios, Kargar’s show, which covered everything from traditional Afghan recipes to domestic violence and child marriage, became a hit, and she started receiving letters from women all over the country.
Kargar received letters from child brides, carpet weavers and widows that had been shunned from society.
The stories that the women told affected her so deeply that she introduced a ‘life stories’ segment to her show, giving these women a chance to have their voices heard for the first time.
As she commuted to work every day in London, Zarghuna found herself looking at the women on the tube and wondering if they would also be interested in hearing the stories.
In the introduction to Dear Zari, she says ‘They might lead very different lives to most Afghan women but they too understand what it’s like to be a mother, a sister, a daughter, to fall in love and to face disappointment.’
It was this sentiment that inspired her to create this book. Collecting together 12 of the most interesting and poignant testimonies from her time spent working on the show, Zarghuna compiled this beautiful selection of stories, which make the women of Afghanistan much more than statistics or faceless figures with no voices. Dear Zari shines a light into this hidden world full of ordinary women with extraordinary stories.
7. The Caged Virgin: A Muslim Woman’s Cry for Reason – Ayaan Hirsi Ali
You know those scenarios where you’re having a dinner party and can invite a certain amount of people, living or dead? Well Ayaan Hirsi Ali always gets prime position at the head of my table.
Somali-born Muslim, Ali fled to the Netherlands to escape a forced marriage and worked as an interpreter in abortion clinics and shelters for battered women.
She then began a career in politics, and now works as a scholar in the US.
With chapters diving right into the heart of Islam and asking her fellow Muslims ‘Why are we incapable of criticising ourselves from within?’ and ‘Why is the position of women in Muslim countries so abominable?’ Ayaan’s book has predictably caused a lot of controversy, but if you are able to suspend your outrage at a women criticising aspects of Islam, then you will find this book to be incredibly informative and very, very important for the times that we live in (another good one for this is The Girl Who Escaped ISIS).
Ali shows that women’s rights are human rights, and her book is an absolute must-read for anybody who claims to care about women.
8. Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery – Siddharth Kara
If Slavery Inc. is the best introduction to contemporary slavery, then Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery is the best follow up that there is. With a background in finance and investment banking, Siddharth Kara has the economic knowledge necessary to speak with authority on this topic.
In this book, he provides the first ever business and economic analysis on slavery (with a focus on sex trafficking) worldwide, describing the local factors and global economic forces that allow this barbaric practice to continue and thrive. He also recommends specific legal, tactical and policy measures that would target the most vulnerable sectors of various slavery industries,
This book may not be the best choice for anybody without a vested interest in this topic (or somebody who has an interest but is only just beginning their research).
However, if this is an issue that you truly care about and you want something a little deeper than the standard ‘exposé’ book, this is definitely the book for you.
9. Half the Sky: How to Change the World – Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn
This book was actually a gift from an ex boyfriend, and it is phenomenal. Half the Sky examines female oppression in its many forms across the globe, from honour culture, to women dying in childbirth and rape.
What makes Half the Sky so special is that it doesn’t just highlight the problems, but it actually proposes solutions.
Looking at human rights and global poverty through an economic lens, Kristof and Wudunn assert that the only real way to tackle poverty, disease and conflict is to invest in girls’ education, microfinance, and empowering women in developing countries to be able to enter the workforce.
Despite its grim subject matter, this book is incredibly positive and optimistic when it talks about global change, and it is an attitude that is so necessary when it comes to seemingly impossible obstacles like the ones women face in the world today.
As far as books about human rights go, I think that this one is super important as it not only highlights a myriad of issues, but also provides solutions!
10. Slave Girl – Sarah Forsyth
Have you ever read a book that changed your life?
It was this, Slave Girl by Sarah Forsyth. I bought this book when I was about 17 years old from Waterstones, and prior to that, I had no idea what sex trafficking was. I’d never even heard of it!
After reading Sarah’s story, and learning about all of the barbaric things that go on in Amsterdam’s Red Light District, something inside me changed. Whenever anyone asks me what I want to do in the future, I always say that I want to start my own organisation to help abolish sex trafficking, and it is all because of this book.
At 19 years old, Sarah Forsyth accepted a job in a creche in Amsterdam. On stepping off the plane, a man was waiting there to confiscate her passport and take her, at gunpoint, to begin her new ‘life’ as a sex worker in the Red Light District. Sleeping in a cage guarded by dogs (that were fed human meat), Sarah was forced to stand in a window every day where she was raped by pimps, police men, and hundreds of clueless tourists. During her time in Amsterdam, she witnessed the worst of humanity, from terrifying games of Russian Roulette, to the murders of trafficked girls being filmed and sold as snuff films.
Without exception, this is the most shocking autobiography that I have ever read, and it paints a whole new picture of this ‘free and liberal’ city, with its horrifying underbelly. This book is a must-read for anybody who has been (or is planning to go) to Amsterdam.
11. Honour Killing – Stories of Men Who Killed by Ayse Onal
In this book, Ayse Onal interviews imprisoned men in Turkey who have been convicted of killing their mothers, sisters and daughters. The result is a revealing and tragic account of ruined lives – both the victims’ and the killers’ – in a country where state and religion conspire to shove the horrendous crime of honour killing under the rug.
Equally shocking and unnerving, this book unmasks the men who commit such heinous acts of violence against their own family members and attempts to make sense of it all.
Books About Human Rights | Final Thoughts
So, there concludes my list of 11 must-read books about human rights.
Please let me know in the comments section if you’ve read any of the books on my list, and also leave me your recommendations! I’m always looking for new books about human rights and women’s rights so please give me all you have!
Until next time.
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Trashy novels are my thing so I was surprised that I have actually read 5 of these books. The ones that stand out for me are Half The Sky and Slave Girl. The former makes you weep at the injustices and abject poverty millions of women and girls suffer but ultimately gives you hope that there are solutions. The latter is a shocking insight into the tawdry world of modern slavery in probably the most famous ‘tourist attraction’ in Holland. Sarah could be your sister, your friend, your daughter.
Travelling Jezebel says
Very true. You are welcome to borrow the ones you haven’t read 😉 xxxx
Barbara Marden says
I would like to borrow them all. I have listened to personal stories of women who have been trafficked and suffered many forms of abuse sometimes due to cultural norms. Thank you for highlighting the abuse of women but also the extraordinary courage of survivors.
Travelling Jezebel says
You’ll have to share some of them with me, or write a guest post for me 😉 I was going to include the War on Women on this list but I ran out of space so it’ll have to be on the next one (which is definitely in the pipeline, haha).