Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide
Reviewed by Stacey Hollebeek
I’ve never read a book before that made me as nauseous as this one.
Actually, it was just the first third or so that made me so sick to my stomach. Once I made it through chapter four or five, I either became hardened to the violence the authors described inflicted upon women in poverty around the world, or the authors turned more philosophical than painful narrative. I suspect it was a combination of both.
The authors, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, are the first married couple to win a Pulitzer Prize for international journalism, which they won in 1990 for their coverage of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 when both were writing for the New York Times. This book is a compilation of the stories and interviews of women they met while they traveled throughout Africa, the Middle East, and Asia covering other stories for American media. Through their travels and plethora of interviews, the two realized how significantly one half of the world’s population – the female half – was being oppressed.
The writing itself is not particularly remarkable – I rarely paused in appreciation of a line or chosen words – instead I sat stunned, appalled at the stories they told of one woman after another throughout the world, raped, beaten, impregnated, forced to live in extreme poverty without education or hope, living lives of practical and true slavery.
Each chapter depicts a difficult aspect of the lives of women in Second and Third World countries, many of which I, in my post-Title IX comfort, had never before considered. The book begins with the difficult topic of enslaved prostitution, focusing on the slums of India, and the tough issue of whether prostitution should be prohibited or regulated in order to better the lives of those women caught up in it.
The book then moves on to the issue of gang rape, as used by rebel militias in the Congo, by rural Ethiopian boys who want to ensure a particular girl they have their eyes on will have to marry them, by communities in Saudi Arabia to control and punish their daughters, always telling the stories through the words and interviews of the women caught up in the issue. Then comes the issue of honor killings, women who kill infant daughters so their husbands won’t divorce them, Iraqi girls stoned for being out too late with a boy, mother-in-laws who beat their daughter-in-laws. That’s just the first third of the book, though the most difficult to read.
The authors then turn to physical difficulties innate in being female – why so many women die in childbirth, the challenges of fistulas and their common occurrence throughout the world, female circumcision, family planning and birth control, avoiding AIDS.
Despite all the ugliness described by the authors, the book is readable because each chapter is also filled with hope, with incredible stories of individual women who have risen from their circumstances, and through grassroots efforts, sometimes with the aid of small Western organizations, have improved the lives of other women in their communities. And there are so many good stories. One of my favorites is Usha Narayane, who, because she was one of the few educated women in her Indian slum, was willing to stand up to the slum lord feared for his raping and killing at will, and brought all the women of the community together in order to put an end to the situation. Then there’s Sakeena, who secretly educated thousands of girls in underground “home schools” throughout Afghanistan during the Taliban ruling, who argues that these Islamic extremists need to be educated so they can read how often the Koran preaches gentleness and respect toward women. Other women start hospitals, businesses, save the lives of their children, finish college, even PhDs.
At the heart of this book is the idea of social entrepreneurship, a call for the necessity of individuals to stand up in creative ways to the evils around them and across the world – and how this is the best way to fight these evils and improve the lives of women, not through huge but well-meaning organizations like the UN or World Health Organization. The authors also recognize this is not easy, and describe stories of Western NGOs (non-governmental organizations) failing miserably, with their flashy cars, too much money, and general cluelessness: “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 we often don’t fully understand,” the authors gently nudge (p. 177).
Kristof and WuDunn never preach obnoxious strident feminism – instead they inform our generation of a quiet social evil against half the world that is heard rarely in America. They show how education for girls seems to be the best way to fight this social poverty and misogynistic evil, and have researched the best ways – though unexpected – to keep girls around the world in school. “We believe an international women’s movement needs to focus less on holding conventions or lobbying for new laws, and more time in places like rural Zimbabwe, listening to communities and helping them get their girls into schools” they write (p. 182).
They also describe what we Westerners can and should do about the issue, if we desire – and it’s hard to finish a book like this without wanting to do something about it – with a whole chapter dedicated to what other individual American women have done, as well as a list of grassroots organizations they have researched and donate to themselves. Now I just need to go find my checkbook . . . or does anyone want to book tickets with me to Zimbabwe?