Katha Pollitt’s new book of poems, The Mind-Body Problem, has just been published by Random House.
Mukhtar Mai, a Pakistani woman raped by decree of village elders as payback for her brother’s alleged courtship of a girl of a different caste. Mahabouba, an Ethiopian girl, purchased at 13 as a second wife by a 60-year-old man, ostracized by her family after she sustained a fistula in childbirth, leaving her incontinent and smelly. Srey Rath, a Cambodian teenager lured from rural poverty with promises of a restaurant job in Thailand, only to be sold into sex slavery in Malaysia, where she was raped, beaten, drugged and, after escaping and spending a year in prison as an illegal immigrant, sold back into a brothel–by a policeman. In the developing world, girls and women suffer because of their sex in the most horrific ways, and in the most commonplace as well: girl children get less medical care (even fewer vaccinations), less food and less attention than their brothers, with the result that in India, for example, the mortality rate for girls under 5 is up to 50 percent higher than for boys.
Full of vivid firsthand reporting, and packed with information–on maternal mortality, genital cutting, sex-selective abortion, dowry deaths, domestic violence, child marriage, honor murder–Half the Sky, by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, calls passionately, even angrily, for a grand campaign: “In this century, the paramount moral challenge will be the struggle for gender equality in the developing world.” Justice for women, they point out, is not only a matter of morality: when girls and women are healthy, educated, able to work and take part in public life, the whole society benefits.
Half the Sky has been criticized for using the culturally clueless rhetoric of “saving” and “rescuing” third world women, for scanting decades of indigenous activism and in general treating women’s human rights as the personal discovery of the authors. There’s some validity to these criticisms. But I’ve written my share of negative comments about Kristof’s early New York Times columns on the subject, and I think he’s come a long way since he gleefully described purchasing the freedom of teenage sex slaves, accused American feminists of indifference to childbirth injuries like fistula in Africa because childbirth was part of women’s “traditional role” and touted evangelical Christians as the best thing that ever happened to African womanhood when they were successfully pressuring the Bush administration to defund reproductive-health programs in favor of religion-infused abstinence education. Kristof and WuDunn are careful to mention explicitly feminist Western NGOs like Equality Now, as well as local grassroots organizations. They emphasize the agency, indeed heroism, of even the most abused victims–Mukhtar Mai, for instance, took her rapists to court and used her legal settlement to start a girls’ school.
In her generally positive Times review, philosopher Martha Nussbaum faults the authors for answering their own question, “Is Islam misogynistic?” with what amounts to a waffling “Not really, but sort of.” However that may be, Half the Sky clearly shows that Islamic nations have no monopoly on misogyny: consider bride burning in Hindu India, genital cutting among both Christians and Muslims in Ethiopia, forced prostitution in Buddhist Southeast Asia and staggering rates of sex-selective abortion in China, India and South Korea. Those who think war is the way to liberate women had better have five or six new armies up their sleeve. And what about the West? The book underplays sexism here in the United States, which is portrayed as an egalitarian paradise where “discrimination is usually a matter of unequal pay”–oh, that–“or underfunded sports teams or unwanted touching from a boss.” I wouldn’t call the roughly 1,300 American women murdered annually by intimate partners, or the widespread incidence of unwanted pregnancy and childbearing, mere details. If women’s equality is the great cause of our time–and I hope it is–we’ll get further by acknowledging it as a challenge no country has yet fully met rather than by framing it as a Western crusade.
Indeed, it is where the goal of liberating women confronts US foreign policy that the book is weakest. Poverty is not the only cause of women’s subjugation–look at Saudi Arabia–but it’s a crucial factor. When America was poor we too had fistula and 14-year-old brides and street children. Where will the money come from to give millions of third world women–and men–education, healthcare, good government and so on? Probably not from US foreign aid, currently just 1 percent of the budget. And probably not from abandoning trade policies that protect US cotton and sugar at the expense of African farmers either. Kristof and WuDunn breeze past the West’s role in creating and sustaining global inequality, as they do the matters of US wars and support for repressive governments. Instead, they offer heartwarmers in which small donations and inspired volunteers work miracles: a girl stays in school because Camfed gives her a uniform; a visit from Heifer International sends a girl to college, a $65 microloan from the Pakistani Kashf Foundation turns a battered wife into a respected partner. To be sure, these groups do good work, as do many others–CARE, Women for Women International–but individual philanthropy can go only so far.
Half the Sky makes such a strong case for gender justice, it demolishes so successfully the unthinking moral relativism that shrugs at atrocities, and it fills the reader’s heart with so much sympathy and indignation that its modest prescriptions come as quite a letdown. What if, for example, instead of spending $650 billion annually on “defense,” we were to build schools and clinics throughout the developing world–and keep them staffed and supplied? What if we dedicated ourselves to safe childbirth for everyone, and contraception, and electrification, and clean water and, sure, microloans–but not at the 30 percent interest rate typical today. If all that were to happen, before long we’d be living in a different, better world–for everyone. n