Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (Book Review #41 of 2016)


Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide

I recently reviewed a host of books on the history and development of Islam and Middle Eastern history (list at bottom of this post). I also read several which included some critiques along with views to the future and reform. I then worked through a list of books by Muslim women, most of which bring light to and critique inhumane practices found in their home countries. Included in this list was Nick Kristof's Half the Sky which looks at women's rights globally, and I'm also including another by someone who left Islam after an extensive intellectual and spiritual search. This book review is in the context of all of those books as a whole. The list (some reviews forthcoming):

Reform and human rights:
Infidel - Ayaan Hirsi Ali (4.5 stars)
Heretic - Ayaann Hirsi Ali (4 stars)
Headscarves and Hymens - Mona Eltahawy (4 stars)
I Am Malala - Malala Yousafzai (5 stars)
I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced by Nujood Ali (4.5 stars)
In the Land of Invisible Women -  Qanta Ahmed (4.5 stars)
Between Two Worlds - Zainab Salbi (5 stars).
City of Lies - Ramita Navai (3 stars)
Half the Sky - Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (4 stars)
Seeking Allah Finding Jesus - Nabeel Qureshi (4.5 stars)



Nick Kristof has long been deserving of the Nobel Peace Prize for his columns highlighting human rights abuses around the world and for helping those who are trying to make a difference. Women's rights, in particular, has been a central focus of Kristof's columns and this book gives details much further than he can in the NY Times. Much of it is difficult to read for its details in abuse of women but it contains enough hopeful stories of empowerment and change to keep a positive tone. From this book, I learned about Zainab Salbi's charity Women for Women, which helps survivors of rape in war. I later read Salbi's autobiography, which is excellent.

"The paramount challenge of the 21st century is women's rights in the developing world." Kristof and WuDunn travel the world highlighting challenges in various countries, including those purely of culture and religion. "Empowering girls disempowers terrorists." In Islamic countries, even the Pentagon has funded studies and programs looking at the effectiveness of empowering women in curbing violence. Education and civil rights are more effective than force. Studies have even found that access to Western soap operas showing rich and influential women affect villages that now have access to some television and satellites. (Qanta Ahmed makes this comment about Saudi Arabia in her book.)

The author who wrote the famous piece "In Praise of Sweatshops" continues his arguments of economic development in this work "Women working in sweatshops are better than women not working at all." In the realm of economic development, he praises Jeff Sachs but also concedes some of Sachs' nemesis Bill Easterly's criticisms. Kristof gives credit where it's due. He praises Bono, as well as the rather controversial Greg Mortenson, whose schools for girls in Afghanistan and Pakistan Kristof has visited. Women who are educated only a little are far better off than those who have no access at all. Despite other policy disagreements, President George W. Bush had a good record on cracking down on human trafficking and funding AIDS help, particularly for Africa.

There is much that is difficult to read in this book. You hear the details of a Cambodian girl brutally forced into prostitution. You read of border guards indifferent about watching exploited girls being trafficked but cracking down on pirated DVDs, militarized rape, bullying, and the lack of health care access in many countries. About the one million children forced into slavery, possibly three million women and children as sex slaves, and at the possible 20 million slaves in the world. Kristof and WuDunn offer portraits of women shattered and abused, but also of women becoming stronger, and women helping women. He highlights the women heroes. Anyone reading this book will want to spring into action, and the authors have answers for them. How can an American help?
- Be realistic about the pace of change.
- Focus on rural schools for women.
- Expose yourself and your children to foreign countries and cultures.

Kristof no longer supports legalization and regulation of prostitution as a solution, seeing too much exploitation by powerful forces. He tells stories of those rescued from their lives, only to return due to psychological issues or a lack of economic alternatives. If you close a brothel, you have to provide jobs for the women to empower themselves and live. There has to be a moral component, communities have to reach a "tipping point" of deciding "enough is enough," and Kristof gives some examples. In some cases, it is when one woman takes a public stand at great risk, and others follow, especially men.

The lack of reproductive health available in places like Sub-Saharan Africa is sobering. Niger reportedly has only 10 OBGYNs in the entire country. Fistula is a common problem. 95% of women in the Sudan are circumcised, a horrifying practice detailed by people like Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Kristof and WuDunn are quick to limit their criticisms of Islam on this point, and note it has more to do with cultural Islam than Islam universally; this is the debate in several of the books in the list at the top of this post. In the US, Kristof is critical of abortion policies that affect the criticially poor in inner-city America that are predominately minorities.

While skeptical of Christian legislation against abortion, Kristof has praise for missionaries; he admires their compassion and desire to live long-term in a country learning language and customs. While many Christians (including myself) bemoan the spread of the Pentecostal-inspired "prosperity gospel" in poor countries, Kristof notes that Pentecostalism in Africa has had the effect of empowering women, allowing them to become powerful leaders in their churches and raising their esteem in the community.

In all, I give this book 4 stars out of 5. It is a must-read if you are interested in women's rights and economic development around the world. I will hopefully enjoy the book's sequel soon.

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