Thursday, December 30, 2010

Review: Half the Sky by Nicolas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

Reviewed by Ingrid

Published: 2009

It's about: This book outlines different kinds of oppression that women face throughout the world today, and how that oppression can be turned into opportunity for women around the world - especially in developing countries. Kristof and WuDunn include stories of specific women around the world who have endured horrible oppression - women who have been kidnapped and forced to work in brothels, women beaten by their husbands and not allowed to leave the house without permission, women who have had their genitals mutilated. They show how each of these women, either by their own initiative or through the help of others, have been able to turn their situation around. Kristof and WuDunn lay out three initiatives that they believe would raise these issues higher on the agenda of international affairs. Last, they offer specific suggestions about what you can do to help, including a section "Four Steps You Can Take in the Next Ten Minutes." There is also an extensive appendix of organizations that support women in developing countries.
Look at some of the projects that have made a stunning difference ... the common thread is that they are grassroots projects with local ownership, sometimes resembling social or religious movements more than traditional aid projects. Often they have been propelled by exceptionally bright and driven social entrepreneurs who had encountered the "treetops" efforts and modified them to create far more effective bottom-up models. That is a crucial way forward for a new international movement focusing on women in the developing world. 
I thought: I was impressed at the balanced and unbiased way Kristov and WuDunn were able to approach such a complex issue. The authors are respectful of the cultures they describe without sacrificing the urgency of the situation. For example, they write,
So was it cultural imperialism for Westerners to criticize footbinding and female infanticide? Perhaps. But it was also the right thing to do. If we believe firmly in certain values, such as the equality of all human beings regardless of color or gender, then we should not be afraid to stand up for them; it would be feckless to defer to slavery, torture, foot-binding, honor killings, or genital cutting just because we believe in respecting other faiths or cultures. One lesson of China is that we need not accept that discrimination is an intractable element of any society. If culture were immutable, China would still be impoverished and Sheryl would be stumbling along on three-inch feet. 
They didn't antagonize men like many books about women's rights often do, at the same time without sacrificing the sense of brutality and misogyny that does occur in many parts of the world. Equal time is given to conservative and liberal viewpoints, with discussion of the pro's and con's of each approach. They were careful to fairly represent even the most controversial practices, like female genital cutting - which is considered a desirable and important rite of passage for girls in Africa. They also didn't project a Western point of view on the rest of the world. They allow women from every culture their own voice. For example:
Westerners sometimes feel sorry for Muslim women in a way that leaves them uncomfortable, even angry. When Nick quizzed a group of female Saudi doctors and nurses in Riyadh about women's rights, they bristled. "Why do foreigners always ask about clothing?" One woman doctor asked. "Why does it matter so much what we wear? Of all the issues in the world, is that really so important?" Another said: "You think we're victims, because we cover our hair and wear modest clothing. But we think that it's Western women who are repressed, because they have to show their bodies--even go through surgery to change their bodies--to please men."
Especially in light of my recent post on Native American Literature, I appreciated the respect and understanding that Kristof and WuDunn exhibited for different cultures.
While empowering women is critical to overcoming poverty, it represents a field of aid work that is particularly challenging in that it involves tinkering with the culture, religion, and family relations of a society that we often don't fully understand. 
I particularly am in support of this suggestion that they offer to those who want to make a difference, as it is something I believe strongly:
Young people often ask us how they can help address issues like sex trafficking or international poverty. Our first recommendation to them is to get out and see the world. If you can't do that, it's great to raise money or attention at home. But to tackle an issue effectively, you need to understand it--and it's impossible to understand an issue by simply reading about it. You need to see it firsthand, even live in its midst. 
Ultimately, I thought that Kristof and WuDunn did an excellent job at representing an extremely complex and urgent issue.

Verdict: Absolutely 100% On the Shelf. 

Reading Recommendations: Anyone remotely interested in human rights should read this book.

Warnings: If you pass up this book because you are worried about the violence described, you are missing out on possibly a life changing experience. I assure you that Kristof and WuDunn present difficult material in a respectful and effective way.

Favorite excerpts:
"Behind the rapes and other abuse heaped on women in much of the world, it's hard not to see something more sinister than just libido and prurient opportunism. Namely: sexism and misogyny. How else to explain why so many more witches were burned that wizards? Why is acid thrown in women's faces, but not in men's? Why are women so much more likely to be stripped naked and sexually humiliated than men? Why is it that in many cultures, old men are respected as patriarchs, while old women are taken outside the village to die of thirst or to be eaten by wild animals? Granted, in the societies where these abuses take pace, men also suffer more violence than males do in America--but the brutality inflicted on women is particularly widespread, cruel, and lethal."
"The challenge today is to prod the world to face up to women locked in brothels and teenage girls with fistulas curled up on the floor of isolated huts. We hope to see a broad movement emerge to battle gender inequality around the world and to push for education and opportunities for girls around the world. The American civil rights movement is one model, and so is the environmental movement, bu both of those were different because they involved domestic challenges close to home. And we're wary of taking the American women's movement as a model, because if the international effort is dubbed a 'women's issue,' then it will already have failed. The unfortunate reality is that women's issues are marginalized, and in any case sex trafficking and mass rape should no more be seen as women's issues than slavery was a black issue or the Holocaust was a Jewish issue. These are all humanitarian concerns, transcending any one race, gender, or creed."
What I'm reading next: At Home by Bill Bryson.