Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide
In Half the Sky, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn lay out a powerful argument about the importance of development work paying heed to gender. Since both Kristoff and WuDunn are well-known and respected journalists, this book will undoubtedly be widely read and influence policy and practice. Skillfully composed of narratives of women’s plight and resistance in Africa and Asia, the authors incorporate scientific and policy research to support their argument. They attempt to outline some of the most significant ways in which women’s oppression plays out; through sex slavery, inadequate maternal health care, rape, and lack of education. The book is obviously a labor of love, and the couple draws their first person narratives from their travels around the globe to bear witness to these situations.
Kristof and WuDunn deal respectfully with issues of cultural relativity, including an insightful and knowledgeable chapter on Islam and its relationship to sexism and women, but they fall short of thoroughly addressing issues of power and privilege in their own relationships to the issues. While they allude several times to critiques of cultural imperialism—mentioning women who have challenged them on their presence and role in the struggles of women from the variety of countries included here—they never seem to delve into the matter deeply, offering blanket statements about morality that are supposed to supersede these critiques.
The authors pay lip service to the leadership of the women most affected by the issues at hand; they also write with a clear intention of encouraging involvement of affluent Americans of all genders through philanthropic and missionary projects. Without passing judgment on these sorts of interventions, what was missing in their analysis was a clear role for the history of colonization and neoliberalism in shaping the relationships between the US and Africa and Asia.
This book will undoubtedly serve as a call to arms to take more seriously the issues facing poor women in Africa and Asia. My only worry is that in ignoring the role of colonialism and capitalism in shaping these problems, the solutions offered will fall short. In one of the final chapters, the authors defend sweatshops from liberal critiques, arguing that because garment work employs women and elevates their economic status above men’s, they can only be a good thing. While sweatshops may, in fact, provide an important source of income for women in impoverished countries, I find their blindness to the ethical and moral implications of such labor practices in contradiction with their righteous stances against sex slavery and other abhorrent practices.
All in all, Half the Sky is an educational and accessible read. The authors have clearly done their research and present an arsenal of knowledge and narrative that supports their call to action. In the midst of economic crisis, while we bear witness to the collapse of American capitalism, I hesitate to endorse a strategy of empowerment for women in “developing countries” that is a path to the same. Perhaps other readers will be inspired to find more creative solutions than the ones offered by the authors.