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, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Serenegoose

    Ebonmuse: The first thing that occured to me in this post, is that you talk about sexism as a bad thing (which it is, superobviously) and then very very quickly go on to talk about the authors of the book.

    “New York Times Columnist” Nicholas Kristoff
    “His Wife” Sheryl WuDunn.

    A quick wiki of Sheryl WuDunn tells me that she’s an Author, Lecturer, and Pulitzer prize winner.

  • Katie M

    Here’s a horrible story about an Afghan girl mutilated for “shaming” her in-laws. It’s a prime example of how far Afghanistan still has to go in regards to women.

  • Sarah Braasch

    While it’s hard for me to criticize anyone who is trying to advocate on behalf of female empowerment on a global scale, I take serious issue with Kristof’s continued and utter refusal to address the role that religion plays in the subjugation of women.

    How exactly does he think all of this lovely female empowerment is going to happen without addressing religion, especially in societies wholly dominated by fundamentalist and patriarchal religions.

    He also likes to pull the old “it’s not religion; it’s culture” switcheroo. As if some distinction could be made between the two.

    Nonetheless, I applaud their consciousness raising. But, to a great extent, I think they are trying to treat the symptom, not the disease. And, in the process, they are perpetuating the patriarchy that makes gender genocide around the world possible.

  • Ebonmuse

    A quick wiki of Sheryl WuDunn tells me that she’s an Author, Lecturer, and Pulitzer prize winner.

    Point taken, Serenegoose; that probably wasn’t the best way to characterize Sheryl WuDunn. Still, I described her in that way because I’m familiar with Kristof’s writings, but I’d never heard of her before reading this book (Pulitzer Prize notwithstanding), and I think most readers are probably in the same boat. However, I do appreciate the correction.

    Nonetheless, I applaud their consciousness raising. But, to a great extent, I think they are trying to treat the symptom, not the disease.

    I couldn’t agree more, Sarah. The authors’ refusal to face up squarely to the ways religion oppresses women was, in my view, by far the weakest point of the book. I understand that they want to build coalitions between left-wing and right-wing groups. But I think they fail to recognize that many religious right organizations are fundamentally dead-set against anything that advances the status of women – and this is true of many Christian groups in the industrialized world just as much as it’s true of Musim groups in the developing world. Trying to negotiate with them is as futile as President Obama trying to negotiate with the Republicans on health care.

    The fact is, anything that frees women from these evils is necessarily going to involve raising their status in society and giving them more autonomy and decision-making power than before. Giving women a say in who they marry, whether they can use birth control, whether they can vote or run for office – these are the very things that religion has long denied them. Kristof and WuDunn write as if the oppression of women is something that these religions can be persuaded to abandon, when in fact it’s central to their whole project.

  • CSN

    I think it’s important to recognize that religion is a reflection of an ever more deeply seated insecurity. For sure religion has taken on a life of its own and will continue to poison minds if it’s not cut down to size. However religion and the general inclination to try to control the “Means of Reproduction” is largely due to the following:

    When a woman has a baby, she is 100% sure it carries her DNA.
    When a man’s sexual partner has a baby, he can never be 100% sure it carries his DNA. (Furthermore there are biological processes that favor the sperm of a non-regular partner!)

    Please noone twist this into a condemnation of women, it just is what it is for evolutionary reasons. Recognizing our instinctual insecurities is crucial in order to transcend them. Only then can we make sure that when religious misogyny is driven back a secular form doesn’t expand to fill the vacuum.

    I agree about sidestepping religion’s responsibility for these problems. It’s exactly like accommodationists in biology education. We shouldn’t go out of our way to attack those who are on our side on an issue but we should make it known what we think and why, and never sacrifice the truth in deference to delusions.

    Glad to see Kiva get some more press. (Atheist group is nearly to $2M! Though it looks like the Xtians are trying to catch up…) I’m on the verge of employment (finally!) so I’ll be back in action on that front soon. FBB is great and I might join but I tend toward the long-term, grassroots things more than disaster relief (necessary though it certainly is.) In the very little Kiva-loaning I’ve been able to do in the past I’ve favored female entrepreneurs, preferably in countries that have a reputation of being particularly oppressive to them, and plan to continue that trend.


  • jemand

    “When a man’s sexual partner has a baby, he can never be 100% sure it carries his DNA.”

    That’s a complete lie. Paternity tests are cheap enough even for the hicks and rednecks to get them if they want.

    “When a woman has a baby, she is 100% sure it carries her DNA.”

    Also a lie. See: Surrogacy.

    To unthinkingly supply these nonsenses as an “explanation” of misogyny is to allow that it has a reason, a justification. It’s pure bunk. It’s bronze age ‘ethics’ crystallized into modern religions in order to survive as an idea. Also go talk to adoptive families and tell them that they aren’t “real” or aren’t “natural” or are going “against human instincts.”

    We human’s are an evolved *INTELLIGENT* species. To discount our intelligence, our discoveries and creations as being irrelevant to evolution is as dumb as discounting fur as relevant to a polar bear’s evolution. Being intelligent and creative and inventive is MUCH more an evolved and instinctual human trait than any misogynistic “just so evolution” story.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Kristof has yet another piece up in the NYT about yet another dead child bride in Yemen.

    I have to tell you — it makes me angry. At Kristof.

    He speaks about the phenomenon as if it were entirely a social problem wholly divorced from religion. He doesn’t mention religion at all.

    I don’t think he’s helping when he does this.

    And, I think he does the persons about whom he is writing a tremendous disservice when he fails to acknowledge the role religion plays in these abhorrent practices.

    The persons in Yemen or Pakistan or wherever are not incapable of grasping the concept of human dignity.

    They have been brainwashed from birth to believe that they must treat women this way to satisfy Allah’s commandments and Mohammed’s example.

    We will never break the cycle of indoctrination and delusion if we don’t acknowledge the problem.

  • CSN

    Re: jemand

    First of all: *facepalm* I’m sorry for any part I played in causing the confusion but you’ve completely missed the point.

    As for the “lies” maybe I did not make it obvious enough that I was talking about the history that brought us where we are today, not only the most recent speck of time in isolation (which I think it is wrong to do, we exist in a context of influences not a vacuum) in which DNA testing and advanced fertility treatments have been available. Without those recent (wonderful) inventions, surely you will agree that those two facts are true.

    Do you really think “a reason” (or “a (partial) explanation”) and “a justification” are synonymous? If Joe was raised in a violent family and one day beats Joe Jr., you’d completely dismiss his violent childhood in the attempt to understand why the later events occurred and, more importantly, how to prevent similar situations in the future? I’d certainly want to understand what part that influence played. Does that mean I’m justifying what Joe did? That’s a complete non sequitur. Sexism does have a reason! Everything has a reason, a cause. That does not make it a justifiable reason. That does not make it an influence we should let shape our future actions, (which is the entire point I was making!)

    As you obviously got emotionally set off and jumped to conclusions before understanding my point, maybe this will cool things down: This is not a solely human phenomenon. Any species in which the male plays a part in taking care of the offspring (and so with scarce resources must be concerned whether it is his DNA he is investing in) will have a similar situation which shapes the mating behavior of the species. (I’m sure this varies in quality and quantity by species and may even be reversed in some cases but the effect is there.) Of course we’ve massively complicated and institutionalized it beyond what other species are generally capable of. The difference with us is that we can be introspective and improve upon the behaviors handed down to us by earlier generations in a conscious, intelligent way, as you mentioned. We have made great strides in many areas but most – such as tribalism (playing a part in racism & jingoism) and sexism – are still in the process of being wrestled into submission species-wide. Waving these influences aside as being irrelevant to our advanced, intelligent species is foolish. An understanding of the evolutionary and historic reasons/causes of these problems is our best ally, if not mandatory, if we are going to succeed in eradicating them.

    Yes, the meme of religion is largely self-perpetuating and looking after itself without interest in the host. However it can self-perpetuate precisely because it pushes instinctual buttons and takes a free ride on pre-dispositions originating in our evolutionary history. Again, understanding those ingrained dispositions rationally is the best way to kick the parasitic meme that takes advantage of them, and prevent another from taking its place. I know too many atheists with misogynistic tendencies. Being able to say “this is part of why you think that way” is a very strong tool for fixing prejudices. Much as understanding the implications of Skinner’s pigeon experiments is a useful tool to combat superstitions (and show the need for controlled experiments in determining causation, to battle confirmation bias.) I know this knowledge has helped me root out and debunk prejudices of my own.

    Just declaring something as self-evident without deconstructing the opposing belief is not going to convince anyone. And fixing problems is what we’re trying to do here isn’t it, not just being right?

    Hopefully this has clarified what I meant which I don’t think is too controversial.

    (I realize I’m stating some things that have not been conclusively proven as fact but I do think they are the best available explanations and logically plausible.)

  • jemand