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HALF THE SKY: TURNING OPPRESSION INTO OPPORTUNITY FOR WOMEN WORLDWIDE became a Political Science best-seller in 2009 but it is a very human story. It is a collection of moving biographical portraits written with the perceptiveness of anthropologists. Yet its authors eschew academic distance in favor of fervent non-partisan, celebrity-endorsed demands for social justice and civic engagement.
Their extremely compelling book is a call to action for all who read it, to understand the transformative power of our acting as global citizens. This is not the old plea to aid the underprivileged but rather an earnest challenge for readers to react to a still pressing global need in new social ways – to stand firmly against the flagrant violence and deeply-engrained injustice that millions of women suffer daily, around the world.
Reading this book will remind you to appreciate how fundamental Americans’ “first-world” privileges are to our lives. Literacy, democracy, industrialization, laws that hold all governing authorities (from school boards and police officers to senators and presidents) accountable to the citizenry, not to mention basic notions of human, racial, and gender equality – the tenets that we take for granted every day are woefully lacking, if not perversely corrupted, in the experience of women and children in many parts of Africa and Asia (and elsewhere).
Kristof and WuDunn relate numerous individual stories in vivid detail, with unsettling conclusions. The writers are honest about how deeply invested they are in the girls’ and women’s fates – literally invested, for on occasion they bought young women from brothel owners to save them from sexual slavery. So, too, do they hope readers not remain mere spectators, but find purpose and take action in the cause of global gender equity.
Yet at its core this is not a liberal tome, however much it has spurred feminist groups since its publication. Kristof and WuDunn frame their discussion in surprisingly conservative ways. Online promotional materials tout WuDunn’s appearances on conservative television networks and talk shows. In HALF THE SKY they call up on “Western” nations to assist the “developing world” – old-fashioned tropes, to progressive-minded readers – though their admirable cause extends far beyond traditional “third-world” nations to castigate economic powerhouses like China and India, and democracies from South Africa to Eastern Europe.
The authors also express a deep appreciation for the transformative work of numerous faith-based charities in the cause of improving women’s and girls’ daily lives, from Heifer International to Catholic Relief Services, from Hindu groups in India to Muslim reformers in Pakistan.
Any historical critique of Western European colonialism – or of the cultural imperialism practiced by past generations of American and European missionaries – is notably absent. Postcolonial political scientists from Africa and Asia also receive scant consideration. However much the authors’ concerns might overlap with contemporary liberal reformers, their approaches notably differ, and in some cases they diverge dramatically. For instance, Kristof and WuDunn would like their new social reformers to take up a “big stick” to stem South Asian sex-trafficking of young girls and improve the situation of adult sex workers. In this, they adopt a term that critics of 19th and early 20th-century western imperialism explicitly disavow – because they want today’s Westerners to take strong, unified, dramatic action, and to put the weight of our governments, Departments of State, and foreign ministries into global service.
Perhaps this is more challenging to conservative thinking that such language implies. Asking American and European governments to pressure other nations – our second- and third-world economic partners – in order to improve the lives of girls and women! Not just to track pirated music and films, or forestall terrorist arms smuggling, but stop the too-common abduction of young peasant girls into the urban sex trade. That requires a dramatic shift in the status quo of what State Departments are all about, and what foreign-government intervention can mean.
At the same time, Kristof and WuDunn discount the reach of such bureaucracies ever to effect real and lasting cultural change. And their lofty, vigorously argued goal is profound cultural change: vanquishing engrained notions of sexism and misogyny.
This is not to suggest that Americans have successfully ended misogyny ourselves. Yet however violent the images on roadside placards lamenting "killing babies" in American towns, HALF THE SKY calls us instead to consider the great tragedies happening daily around the world, in the extraordinarily widespread killing, mutilation, and psychological destruction of women and girls of all ages.
Kristof and WuDunn touch on social contexts like endemic poverty in drought-starved nations, multi-generational civil wars (part of colonialism’s aftermath), and a world-wide economic expansion that has created workhouses of forced prostitution, far more dire than the oppressive factory-labor conditions on which tech-industry critics have lately trained a watchful eye.
But there are not enough eyes looking hard at the tragic, disturbing facts of violence and inequity against women, the authors tell us. We must SEE for ourselves.
There are not enough voices speaking out against this in the Western world – either among diplomats and politicians, or among ordinary citizens. We must SPEAK about these matters with each other and to the leaders of nations where such injustices have too long gone unremarked and unpunished.
There are, to date, only the beginnings of a new global reform-minded commitment to teaching indigenous women how to speak out for themselves. We must TEACH girls to imagine better lives.
Read. Care. Become involved.
This is purposeful writing, indeed. The stories are challenging, daunting, haunting, often heart-wrenching – though Kristof and WuDunn have consciously crafted them with as optimistic an arc as the facts allow, for they know Americans act most concertedly when inspired by hope.
In relating the tribulations and successes of individual women from Cambodia to the Congo, the authors emphasize reformers’ ability to create opportunities. They advocate an approach that does not so much solve problems, or ameliorate difficult circumstances, but rather uses that “big stick” to build new structures of support in women’s lives, to improve their education, their health, and their economic status – on the smallest of scales. Support local transformations, they advise, and pour your heart into it.
After reading this book, you’ll recognize that as global citizens we face issues far greater than what language our congressional representatives use in their account of sexual assault (as disturbing as it may be). Mass rape in modern wars is shockingly common. During Liberia’s recent conflict, as many as 90% of women and girls over age three may have been sexually abused (HALF THE SKY, 83). In South Africa, rape is still so endemic that gynecologists have invented a zipper-like insertable device women can use to maul those who assault them.
Violence against women, worldwide, is not just a matter of brutally offensive language, but of repeated, culturally accepted, horrifying and vicious cruelty enacted on a daily basis – in war, yes; and in brothels; and in households and kitchens and shacks and slums and public streets.
WATCH. READ. Read more, like this New York Times Magazine special issue devoted to the book and the issues it raises.
Then you’ll have to find a way to act.
The transformation of our world can be grander than we imagine.
The book is available in hardcover (Knopf) and paperback (Vintage) at Harrisburg’s Midtown Scholar Bookstore-Café and online at MidtownScholar.com.
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