Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (Alfred A. Knopf, 2009)
Inspired by the PBS documentary and the recommendation of a friend, I put myself on the library waiting list for Half the Sky. As usually happens, it became available at an inconvenient time, and I had to return it to the library in a hurry. That was back in October, so I'm trying to craft this review from my hastily-scribbled (typed) notes and quotes.
The book is better than the television show, if only because it features fewer American pop-culture icons and more real people. It also, of course, gives more detail, though there is something to be said for the visceral effects of seeing and hearing the people behind the words. Both left me with two distinct reactions, neither of which is probably what the authors had in mind.
When reading (or watching) these stories of unbelieveable brutality and oppression of women, the first, and no doubt intended, reaction is, "What are we doing to our women and girls, to the majority of the population of the world, to half of the very image of God?" Particularly since the authors relate all these horrors while barely touching on the problem of sex-selective abortion. And yet my lasting impression followed almost immediately: What have we done to our men and boys? Not everyone will agree, but I say that there is something even worse than the atrocities committed upon these women, and that is being the kind of person who commits such acts. Ultimately, no solution to the problem of violence against women will succeed unless the rehabilitation of men is also addressed.
Not that women, as a sex, are innocent:
In talking about misogyny and gender-based violence it would be easy to slip into the conceit that men are the villains. But it's not true. Granted, men are often brutal to women. Yet it is women who routinely manage brothels in poor countries, who ensure that their daughters' genitals are cut, who feed sons before daughters, who take thieir sons but not their daughters to clinics for vaccination. One study suggests that women perpetrators were involved, along with men, in one quarter of the gang rapes in the Sierra Leone civil war.
But by and large, men have the power, and they use that power in ways that hurt women, even their own wives and daughters.
Some of the most wretched suffering is caused not just by low incomes, but also by unwise spending—by men. it is not uncommon to stumble across a mother mourning a child who has just died of malaria for want of a $5 mosquito net and then find the child's father at a bar, where he spends $5 each week. ... Roughly 7 percent of the total spending of the poorest people in Indias's Maharashtra State went to sugar. ... [I]n much of the world even some of the poorest young men, both single and married, spend considerable sums on prostitutes. ... [A]t least in Udaipur, the malnutrition could in most cases be eliminated if families bought less sugar and tobacco. ... If poor families spent only as much on educating their children as they do in beer and prostitutes, there would be a breakthrough in the prospects of poor countries. Girls ... would be the biggest beneficiaries.
Or, as my son-in-law succinctly put it, "Men can't be trusted to bring home the bacon rather than eating it on the way home."
Why not? Why is it that when women in poor countries get jobs, they use the money to feed and educate their children, but men spend their incomes (and their wives', if the money isn't hidden from them) on beer, cigarettes, and prostitutes? It was (is) not always thus: men used to be proud to support their families, and many still are. Perhaps in this country one can cast some blame on feminism, which robbed men of the assurance that their own sacrifices were essential to their families' survival. But in many poor countries little of the bread ever made it to the children's mouths until their mothers began earning it. Here's one theory:
[Quoting David Landes, the eminent Harvard historian] The economic implications of gender discriminaion are most serious. To deny women is to deprive a country of labor and talent, but—even worse—to undermine the drive to achievement of boys and men. One cannot rear young people in such wise that half of them think themselves superior by biology, without dulling ambition and devaluing accomplishment.
(On a side note, while I applaud the movement in some Christian circles to encourage boys and men in chivalry, graciousness, and love, I cringe when I see how often this is taught through the idea that boys are superior to girls—sometimes even to the extent of being stronger and wiser than their mothers! As Landes said, this is not only harmful to their mothers and sisters, and future wives and daughters, but to the boys themselves. Here's an article I ran into recently that addresses a related problem, and has the lovely title, Why You Should Stop Treating Your Husband Like a Toddler, and ACTUALLY Respect Him.)
On the bright side, as men see the economic potential and power of their wives, they often come to respect them more, and then see the value in educating their daughters. On the other hand, there's a clear risk that they will only see the economic value, and women will find themselves further enslaved, working at a job, running the household as usual, and funding their husbands' bad habits as well.
Half the Sky rightly celebrates the efforts of women worldwide to address the problem of their own oppression, but it will take both men and women, working together, to address the heart of the tragedy.
I'll leave my second, and quite different, take-away from Half the Sky for another post. I was going to add some more quotes, but as they, too, are on a different subject, so that will make a third post—a record for one book review, I think.