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March 17, 2020

I Thought I Was a Feminist, Until I Checked My Bookshelves

Why it matters to read as many books written by women as those by men.

by Devyta Wijaya
Membaca Buku Perempuan Literasi_SarahArifin

I consider myself as someone who likes to read. I always have an answer for a “what are you reading now” question, I have books on my bedside, and I enjoy reading practically anything – from Haruki Murakami’s books to my shampoo bottles. Besides that, I’d also like to consider myself as a feminist. I believe that men and women should have equal opportunity, I took a gender class in law school, and I despise sexist comments.

So, it’s only fitting that I read a lot of books written by women. But I haven’t really dwelled on how feminist I am when it comes to my readings, until recently.

About a week ago, I thought about the next book that I’m going to read. I have a couple of books on my bookshelves that I haven’t read. I considered Orhan Pamuk’s A Strangeness in My Mind or Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, and to help me making the decision, I thought about the books that I read recently because I want to read something different. I was reading Gabriel Garcia-Marquez’s Of Love and Other Demons at that moment, and before that books by Eka Kurniawan, Haruki Murakami, Yuval Noah Harari, Tom Wolfe… and then I stopped digging into my memory.

Also read: 'Bad Feminist' and How I Happily Accept Contradicting Myself

Why are they all men? I asked myself. Have I been sexist when it comes to my readings?

In disbelief, I checked the books on my bookshelves and found out that from the 100ish books there, I only have around 20 books written by women. Some of them were presents and I hadn’t read seven of them. As I was trying to figure out why my bookshelves are so shamefully sexist, I recalled two particular instances: first, although a couple of my friends praised Michelle Obama’s Becoming, I passed it on the bookstores; second, when another friend recommended Elena Ferrante and Tom Wolfe’s books, I chose the latter.

At this stage, I realized that I unconsciously choose men over women authors. Perhaps because I have biases that men have more authority than women in explaining things. Perhaps because I unconsciously think that men’s perspectives are more interesting than those of women. But I’d rather not delve into the whys because I know that whatever the reasons are, it’s not right to ignore women’s works and thoughts out of preference.

Also read: 10 Ways You're Wrong About Feminism

Does it matter how many books written by women you have read? I think it does. When we read a book, we learn to see things from the author’s perspectives, we try to understand his/her arguments, we get to know his/her ideas. This means that the more books written by women that we read, the more we see through women’s perspectives. And this is important not only for men, but also for women.

In a world where gender disparities are found in so many areas, we are used to stereotypes and systemic discrimination that puts men over women. As a woman myself, I used to believe that men are better leaders than women, or that women should be better at doing household work. Had it not been for the incredible women who had spoken up against these stereotypes, I would have still hold on to that belief.

Back to the question of the next book that I’m going to read, now that I know better, I decided to pick a book written by a woman. This time I chose Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights that has been sitting on my bookshelf for years. I have also made a commitment with myself that for the whole year, I will only read books written by women. And hopefully one day, I can proudly say that I’m no longer a sexist reader.