Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas D. Kristof
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
At one point in their book, Half the Sky, Kristof and WuDunn write, “There will be less [sex:] trafficking and less rape if more woman stop turning the other cheek and begin slapping back”.
WuDunn and Kristof, a married couple, detail much of what are “woman’s” issues in the developing world. Their book focuses on sexual trafficking, micro finance, maternal health, as well as religion and education. The argument that they put forward is that developing countries need to emancipate women (and women need to free themselves) so that the country can develop. Kristof and WuDunn give a call to arms, not because of guilt, but because it is simply the right thing to do.
The thesis of the book is aptly illustrated though several stories of women who have succeeded, for the most part, despite the circumstances that they lived in. The first section of the book deals with sex trafficking and prostitution. Though the use of personal stories as well as statistics, they make a compelling case to illegalize prostitution. They examine and compare places were prostitution is semi legal to where prostitution was outlawed. (Sweden, for example, won’t charge the prostitutes but the johns). The primary focus of this section is the use of sexual slavery and child trafficking. Kristof tells a particularly chilling story of a border guard in India who will stop the import of pirated DVDS, but not of young girls that are sold into brothels. The guard sees such foreign women as less than Indian women. Kristof and WuDunn examine the cultural beliefs that led themselves to a tacit endorsement of such trafficking.
The human trafficking section gives way to a section about the use of rape as punishment, control, and a terror device. Included in this section is the story of Usha Narayane, a woman who lived in an Indian slum. She and her family were Dalits (Untouchables), and the slum was under control of a man, Yadav, a gangster who was able to terrorize the slum (though rape and sexual violence) because the police were paid off and looked the other way. Yadav attacked Narayane’s neighbor and Narayane went to the police to report it. Yadav and his men threaten Narayane at her family’s house. The thing is that Narayane’s was a well educated woman, as was her family; they were well liked in the slum. Narayane fought back and this inspired the others in the slum to fight back as well. They attacked Yadav who eventually turned himself into the police for his own protection. During what amounts to a pre-trial hearing, the women from the slum showed up and stabbed Yadav to death. Each woman stabbed him once. The importance of this story isn’t the revenge killing; in fact, there is a slight uncomfortable feeling in the retelling, but the fact that women can rise up and can effect change.
There is a more famous story told in the section on rape, that of Mukhtar Mai, the young woman who was ordered gang raped as punishment for an “alleged” crime of her brother. She ended up pressing charges, facing death threats, and persecution from the government. What is important about these stories is that Kristof and WuDunn never take them out of context. They are careful to keep the stories within a culture, while comparing it to Western way. In other words, they do not paint Mukhtar Mai as the definition of a Western feminist. The reader is told her whole story, including her becoming a man’s second wife.
The rape section also includes a good description of Rapex, an insert able vagina detintia, and its inspiration.
At one point in the first half of the novel, the authors seem to wonder if they are portraying men in too negative a light.
They’re not. This book is pro-women, but it is not anti-male.
Even if one were to disregard that one of the authors is a man, plenty of the stories about woman’s success also illustrate the support of men. Mukhtar Mai was supported by her father and brothers, Narayane and her fellow women also had the support of their male relatives, a young girl continues school after a rape that was suppose to end in her marriage because her father supports her. It is true there are some stories were the husband’s look bad (and strangely, these stories appear most in the section about women and business), but 95% of the stories show men in a positive light. Not as protectors or rescuers, but as supporters.
Additionally, Kristof and WuDunn keep the focus on what local people are doing. They focus mostly on the grassroots level. While they illustrate and call for Western nations to help in terms of donations, they do not present “the great white man coming to save the poor colored natives” approach that can sometimes appear. While they present Westerns (primary Americans and Brits) who have helped women in developing countries, Kristof and WuDunn keep the focus on what local women are doing. We are given, in brief, the story of a hospital founded in Africa to repair fistulas, but we are given, in far more depth, the story of a woman who went to be treated there and ended up becoming a doctor who now works there. Furthermore, they argue for cultural understanding as well as aid. In other words, they caution against going to X and demanding that it become Westernized.
The book is not designed to be a Hollywood happy ending book; the difficulties of aid are presented quite well. It does not bash one political party or the other, but instead calls upon the right and the left to work together. It is a call to arms at a governmental level as well as a grassroots one. Arguing, quite eloquently that in order to fight poverty and even terrorism, women should be emancipated.
Read this book now – just to find out how big the problem is. Some of the information is absolutely frightening.
(Incidentally, there is a section on Islam and the 70 virgins. The authors point out that some scholars think the word that some people means virgins might mean white grapes instead.)
View all my reviews