I finished reading “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide” a couple of weeks ago, but it’s taken me a while to figure out what I want to say about it. It’s written by husband and wife Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, and it examines what life is like for women in the developing world and what we in the West can do to help them.
I do have a few criticisms of the book. One jarring note was in the authors’ praise of China as a great place to be a woman, despite also saying this:
The combination of the one-child birth control policy and convenient access to ultrasound testing means that parents routinely check the sex of a fetus and get an abortion if it is female. The sex ratio of newborns is 116 boys for every 100 girls, meaning that many poor women will never be able to marry; this will be a source of future instability.
They also say, “Governments should encourage male circumcision, which reduces HIV risk significantly…” They discuss female genital cutting at length, but circumcision only twice, and offer no evidence to back up their claim. Some studies have shown benefits to circumcision, but right now it’s widely viewed as a cultural, non-medical procedure. Various national medical associations do not advocate for routine infant circumcision. I think a little more research needs to be done before we can start recommending it for all male infants.
This is a small thing, but at one point they say, “As Harper jabbers away in Swahili…” “Jabber” is a word with negative connotations, and includes in its definition “making little sense.” Just because you don’t understand a language doesn’t make it “jabber.”
The authors also advocate American students taking time to go abroad to learn about the struggles facing the developing world. I am all for being a multilingual and global citizen, because I believe most Americans are too insular. However, I think as we do so we need to avoid perpetuating cultural imperialism. Most Thais or Cambodians or Ethiopians wouldn’t welcome white people coming into their countries to tell them what they’re doing wrong. The United States is far from a perfect country for women to live. A few African countries far outstrip us when it comes to equal representation in government. The rate of C-sections is sky-high. Women still don’t earn as much as men for the same work. So American students can certainly work alongside Afghani community organizers or Indian health care workers, but taking a leading role would probably not be welcome.
ALL THAT SAID, “Half the Sky” is still one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. You should read it for the inspiring stories, if nothing else. Kristof and WuDunn share stories from women who have experienced the worst of humanity: they have been raped, beaten, starved, trafficked into brothels, denied education, had acid thrown on them, force-fed drugs, had their children kidnapped–and they’ve survived. In many cases, they’ve flourished, by starting programs to help other women similar situations, earning master’s degrees, performing surgery–the list goes on. I am in awe of each and every one of the women in the book. Their bravery, strength and courage make my activism seem very tiny, but they also make me more determined to stand up for all women’s rights.