Thursday, January 12, 2012

Half the Sky: a review

Note: this was originally published on my personal blog two years ago. However, it is being reposted here in light of this month being National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. As President Obama noted in his announcement, "Trafficking networks operate both domestically and transnationally, and although abuses disproportionally affect women and girls, the victims of this ongoing global tragedy are men, women, and children of all ages."

Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said: “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.” If that is true, than journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (a husband and wife team whose liberal politics occasionally peek through), have written a truly conservative book in Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide; for they insist that culture, more than politics, is the answer to gender discrimination around the world. In this way, it fits very well with the body of work begun by Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress.

The main theme of the book is that the liberation and education of women and girls around the world, especially in the third world, is both economically profitable and morally right. They even go so far, at times, as to insist that when it may not be economically profitable, it is still morally right. Their numbers are staggering:
Amartya Sen, the ebullient Nobel Prize-winning economist, developed a gauge of gender inequality that is a striking reminder of the stakes involved. “More than 100 million women are missing,” Sen wrote in a classic essay in 1990 in The New York Review of Books, spurring a new field of research. Sen noted that in normal circumstances, women live longer than men, and so there are more females than males in much of the world. Yet in places where girls have a deeply unequal status, they vanish. China has 107 males for every 100 females in its overall population (and an even greater disproportion among newborns), and India has 108. The implication of the sex ratios, Sen later found, is that about 107 million females are missing from the globe today. Follow-up studies have calculated the number slightly differently, deriving alternative figures for “missing women” of between 60 million and 107 million.

It appears that more girls and women are now missing from the planet, precisely because they are female, than men were killed on the battlefield in all the wars of the 20th century. The number of victims of this routine “gendercide” far exceeds the number of people who were slaughtered in all the genocides of the 20th century.
For those women who live, mistreatment is sometimes shockingly brutal. If you’re reading this article, the phrase “gender discrimination” might conjure thoughts of unequal pay, underfinanced sports teams or unwanted touching from a boss. In the developing world, meanwhile, millions of women and girls are actually enslaved. … In Asia alone about one million children working in the sex trade are held in conditions indistinguishable from slavery, according to a U.N. report. Girls and women are locked in brothels and beaten if they resist, fed just enough to be kept alive and often sedated with drugs — to pacify them and often to cultivate addiction. India probably has more modern slaves than any other country.
Kristof and WuDunn track down these girls, interview them, and tell their painful stories. They also examine various types of assistance that these nations receive, and impressively, are very intellectually honest about what works and what doesn’t. They are also very careful to take into account unforeseen consequences of well-intended efforts, be they “liberal” or “conservative.” Their conclusion is that efforts that target and attempt to change cultural norms are most effective, especially through education.

While they frequently remind the reader that education is no panacea, it, more than other efforts, seems to be producing some of the best results. They frequently note that in many cultures, the women and girls who are mistreated have been conditioned into accepting that husbands beat wives, men rape women, and boys are more important than girls. Thus, changing their circumstances, their legal/political structure, or their economic status doesn’t really help—in one instance, the authors personally bought and freed a young woman, only to see her return “voluntarily” (due in part to drug addiction) to the very same brothel. The way to prevent mistreatment is therefore to teach women (and men) that such treatment is unacceptable.

Interestingly, they note that there is some recent evidence that the introduction of television, and the portrayal of independent women that comes with it, has led to a reduction in abuse. They point to Wilberforce’s campaign against slavery, as well ending foot binding in China, as two successful culture shifts that benefited human rights.

Disappointingly, while they focus to a large extent on the importance of culture in both economic stability and the protection of human rights, a hole in their analysis appears the further one goes through the book—namely, the absence of Christianity. They differentiate between the successes of the western world and the rest of the world, and lay the credit of the west’s success at the feet of their culture: one that respects human rights (including the rights of women). However, they never take the final step and admit that this culture of freedom is based upon Christianity.

This omission is much more noticeable because the authors devote an entire chapter to the question “Is Islam Misogynistic?” Their answer, rather surprisingly, is no. Yet a closer reading reveals how they can hold to that position, while implicitly arguing that Christianity, in contrast, is misogynistic. Islam, in their view, properly understood and applied, is not misogynistic, but liberating. Christianity, they imply without saying, properly understood and applied, is misogynistic. It just so happens that neither culture has correctly understood or applied its religion, which is why the Christian nations are free while the Islamic nations, by and large, are still oppressive. (They never state this conclusively, but it is the implication—at least the implication that I received—throughout the chapter.)

Also disappointing is Kristof and WoDunn’s tacit praise for China. Indeed, the title of the book is drawn from Mao Tse Tung, who said that “Women hold up half the sky.” China, they point out, has liberated its women, who are now active and productive members in its economy. This in turn has stimulated their economy, since they are now taking advantage of their entire workforce, rather than merely half. While they have a point economically, what they miss is that this “liberation” was motivated by the communist animus toward the family. Here, unlike in the rest of the book, they seem to presume that economic development trumps morality.

I have focused on some of the weaker elements, but the work as a whole is actually quite compelling; especially the first two-thirds. It is at times hard to read, and occasionally comes close to presuming all men are villains. (Although the authors try hard to avoid this, it is a side effect of the subject matter. Their website banner reads: “Women aren’t’ the problem, they’re the solution along with men.”) All in all, though, it is a very revealing, interesting, and educational read—which is likely why, although it was only published in 2009r, it is already in its twenty-fourth printing. This is a book that will both raise awareness and motivate action for oppressed women around the world.
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