The Other Half of the Sky: the NYT Magazine’s Women’s Crusade Issue

At the heart of many of the problems plaguing Muslim women in developing nations is a dollar bill, not a Qur’an. That was the overall impression I received from reading last Sunday’s Times Magazine. The issue of women in developing nations may not appear to be an impending issue for the Muslim community. In fact, the phrase “women in development” may turn away many readers. However, these issues are at the heart of many global conflicts, and in many cases, these impoverished women are Muslims themselves.

The New York Times Magazine. Image via Katy Grannan for the New York Times.
The New York Times Magazine. Image via Katy Grannan for the New York Times.

There was a diversity of stories, from highlighting the focus upon women from foreign aid, to successful micro lending stories, to the plans of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. From these articles, one could see the true motivator of injustice against women is economics, especially in nations with high concentrations of Muslims. Overall, the issue made a great case of not only showing the significance of women in empowering the impoverished, but in showing the complexity of the dynamics of these communities. The message is clear: alleviating the problems with women is one that transcends culture, religion, and geography. It is not only the problem of developing nations, it is one which touches all of our lives.

In an article entitled “The Woman’s Crusade” by Nicholas Kristof , he analyzes the significance of empowering women in impoverished region, but ultimately highlights the growing interest in the subject. In a world where women are marginalized and exploited for a vast range of reasons, Kristof highlights the importance of women in the “solution” rather than as a problem. According to Kristof, the fact that women are the target of foreign aid is no coincidence. Respected organizations such as the World Bank and CARE focus upon women and girls to fight extreme poverty. He then moves along to tell the story of a woman in Pakistan named Saima Muhammad, who endured beatings from her husband and lived in deplorable conditions. With the help of a loan from the Kashf Foundation in Pakistan, she was able to turn her life around and earn the respect of her husband.

He then moves along to the story of Abbas Be, a young Indian teenager who had to become a maid to help support her family, and in turn is locked in a brothel and subjected to abusive conditions. After finally being freed from a world of gang-raping and murder, she is now finding a new life in education and counseling other young women in how to avoid being sex-trafficked. Once again, we see a theme in education, as well as the correlation between economic independence and the control that these women have over their lives. Kristof utilizes the stories of these two women to make the point that the education of women and girls is the most precious commodity in a developing nation, whether it is realized or not. In this point, I agree with him completely. Women are more likely to spend money on their families: Abbas and Saima both utilized their money to not only empower themselves, but their entire households.

Kristof asserts that this is the real key to alleviating poverty within developing nations. He points out that some of the poorest families in developing regions utilize nearly ten times the amount of money on alcohol and prostitution than that spent upon education of children. Placing more economic power into the hands of women provides more opportunities for ensuring that money is spent on the family. I found this subject to be particularly fascinating, because it is an area of interest for me. I began my college career studying about the textiles industry, while caring about global issues. Through studying about microfinance, I found a bridge between business and empowering women across the globe. A recurring theme of this issue was economic independence as well as education. These are themes that transcend religious boundaries.

The most respectable feature of Kristof’s article was a general appreciation for the culture as well as efforts of these women. In these articles, I saw an awareness of a need for not only women’s empowerment, but for the respect of their cultures. This message of empowerment through tolerance was distorted by the decision of the magazine to feature an article about “The Feminist Hawks”.  According to the article, feminist hawks advocate “the use of force to liberate women from persecution and burkas”.  While the article did not condone or admonish the feminist hawks, featuring it amongst the other stories sent a confusing message. I feel that the feminist hawk position is self-serving and imperialistic. I wondered about the tactics described in the other articles in the issue versus that of the hawks. Force would only sustain a cycle of violence and ultimately, poverty. Such groups do not understand the true problem, which is one involving social and economic factors, which at times, manifests itself behind a mask of religion.

While I feel that the feminist hawk position is more so in the neighborhood of Islamophobia, reading the article after reading about the significance of microfinance and education helped me reflect a little bit more about the significance of this to the Muslim community. Overall, I felt that the issue humanized these women’s problems, which reach beyond the Muslim community, but even touch aspects of our own lives. When thinking about painful occurrences, such as suicide bombings, it is easy for some to simply blame religion. After all, an ideological divide makes it easier to construct an enemy. Muslim women in impoverished nations have every right to earn economic independence and liberation. To realize that the limitations placed on their lives are human constructions is an incredible step in the right direction. While religion may be the excuse, religion is not at the heart of the reason.

I thought this was a significant read, not only because it relates to my graduate studies, but because it had a message which we need in foreign affairs in general: empowerment through understanding. For a while, I thought I wanted to join the Peace Corps, and from informational sessions, I learned that the best volunteers were those that actually absorbed the culture and listened to the needs of the villages that they worked with. I know that this is going to be a challenge for our world, but I really believe that we are moving towards attempting to grasp a better understanding of not only solutions, but the relationship between problems that plague our world.

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