Book Review: Half the Sky

Summary: A wrenching chronicle of the injustices and preventable evils committed against women around the world. The bright spots are few and far between, but that should only instill readers with a greater sense of urgency to do something about all this. I felt intense pangs of conscience while reading this book; you probably will too.

In January, I reviewed Michelle Goldberg’s book The Means of Reproduction. That was an outstanding work of consciousness-raising, one which enlightened me to the ways in which the success or failure of the atheist movement is bound up with the liberation of women from patriarchal religious traditions. Half the Sky, written by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and his wife Sheryl WuDunn, follows in the same vein and is a worthy companion to Goldberg’s book. Its focus is broader – not just reproductive politics, but all the ways that the world’s women experience violations of human rights. That makes it less a single, sustained argument and more a collection of stories, but its narrative force is undiminished for all that.

Kristof and WuDunn address three major areas in which women throughout the developing world still suffer from horrendous, yet wholly preventable, injustices. Those three are: sex trafficking and forced prostitution; gender-based violence, including honor killings and rape as a weapon of war; and maternal mortality. Collectively, according to Nobel-winning economist (and atheist) Amartya Sen, these have resulted in the deaths of more than a hundred million women. As the authors write:

More girls are killed in this routine “gendercide” in any one decade than people were slaughtered in all the genocides of the twentieth century. [p.xvii]

All these evils can be prevented or remedied, and in most cases, it would take only a small amount of attention and money from the wealthier nations of the world. Yet because the victims are poor, politically voiceless women of color, their sufferings tend to be ignored or marginalized as “women’s issues” – even though, in nearly all cases, educating and empowering women is an effort that pays for itself many times over in terms of economic prosperity and social progress.

The first evil described by Kristof and WuDunn is one that readers may be surprised to learn still exists: slavery. In the past, slaves were used for labor, but many modern slaves are women coerced into work as prostitutes. Some are outright kidnapped; others are deceived by traffickers who promise to find them jobs, only to sell them to brothels. In either case, once they’re there, the brothel owners use the same means to induce compliance: threats, beatings, torture, or forcing them to take meth or other drugs. In the rare cases where women escape and go to the police, the police often refuse to listen, or even send them back to the brothels. And since enslaved women obviously have no power to ask their customers to use condoms, many of them end up dying of AIDS. Estimates for the size of the modern slave trade are difficult to come by, but various sources estimate the number of slaves at between 1 and 10 million – many of them children.

Most atheists are aware of the practice of honor killing, where men in (mostly Muslim) societies murder their own wives and daughters for perceived immodesty. The following chapters discuss this as well as other forms of sexual violence: acid attacks, mass rape as a weapon of war, abduction and rape as a means of obtaining a wife, the routine abuse and beatings that women and girls suffer in many cultures, and female genital cutting, a barbaric practice disguised with the innocuous-sounding term of female circumcision. Awful as they are, many of these practices have resisted eradication because they’re deeply entrenched in the culture. The authors interview women who agree that husbands have a right to beat their wives if they’re disobedient, or older women who perpetuate the practice of female genital cutting on their own daughters, or girls who are rescued from slavery in brothels and then return to them willingly. None of this means that these practices can’t be ended or that it’s not worth the trouble to try, but, the authors argue, it does show the ineffectiveness of top-down diplomatic efforts that involve changing a country’s laws and expecting all its people to follow suit. The authors argue that real social progress, for women and for everyone in developing countries, has to be done at the grassroots level by groups that have an intimate familiarity with local people and conditions on the ground.

The last of the three major issues is maternal mortality. In wealthy nations where C-sections are routine, hardly any women die in childbirth, but in countries lacking a medical infrastructure, death from obstructed labor is still a real and present danger. Even women who survive the ordeal can be scarred for life, such as in the case of fistula, a crippling injury that causes incontinence and paralysis. Fistulas are easily fixed with surgery, but if untreated, it often sentences women to a life of outcast misery. As the authors point out, however, this is not a hard problem to address. Sri Lanka, still a relatively poor country, has maternal mortality rates as low as many industrialized nations. What’s needed isn’t wealth per se, so much as the political will to confront the problem and to make real investments in clinics and women’s health.

I don’t mean to give the impression that Half the Sky is one long chronicle of misery. In every chapter there are bright spots, examples of women who’ve heroically defied religious and cultural oppression to fight for human rights and equality, as well as innovative charities and NGOs working to advance the cause of human equality in the poorest and most downtrodden corners of the world. One of the best examples was the story of Mukhtar Mai, a Pakistani woman who was gang-raped as the result of a tribal dispute, and rather than commit suicide to cleanse her honor (the expected response of a woman in that situation) defied her attackers and her government and now runs a school for women and girls. Another is Zainab Salbi, who grew up in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and now runs a charity called Women for Women International which aids survivors of civil war and ethnic cleansing worldwide. Another cause for optimism is the fading of female genital cutting, which the authors confidently predict will be eradicated in the near future, just as the once-widespread Chinese practice of foot binding has all but disappeared. And one point I especially appreciated was that the closing chapter lists several immediate steps readers can take (I was happy to see that joining Kiva is one of them!).

If I have one major complaint, it’s that the authors pull their punches when discussing religion. They repeatedly emphasize the good that religious charities have done in poor and rural areas (not an unfair point, I acknowledge). Yet they pass up countless opportunities to explain how religion contributes to these very problems: African evangelicals who burn condoms for Jesus, monasteries which teach that AIDS can be cured by drinking magical water, religions that encourage witch hunts and teach that the role of women is to be subservient to their husbands, American conservatives whose votes have resulted in the shutdown of life-saving family planning clinics and the teaching of ineffective abstinence programs throughout the Third World. Even the Vatican’s deadly opposition to birth control is only mentioned in passing (they spend more space discussing a few brave Catholic priests who hand out condoms in defiance of Rome’s orders).

To an extent I understand this decision, since they’re clearly trying to build a coalition between left and right to address these issues and don’t want to drive off any potential allies. But I think their argument is hampered by their refusal to face up to the real cause of the problems they’re battling. I don’t expect this book to be an atheist tract, yet it would be much stronger if the authors would clearly state even that some forms of religion are oppressive and brutal to women and should be abolished.

That said, Half the Sky is a powerful work of consciousness-raising. We citizens of the First World have by no means abolished sexism, yet women and girls here enjoy a level of freedom and autonomy that’s light-years beyond the status of millions throughout the world. This is a huge accomplishment, but we can’t forget how much remains to be done. There’s a truly huge gulf that remains to be bridged, and this book gives a glimpse of how deep it runs – and, with luck, what we have to do to get to the other side.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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