Half the Sky
Nicholas D Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn Half the Sky – How to Change the World
(Vintage Books, 2009)
A review by Chantal Babin
(Reviewed December 2010)
Winners of a Pulitzer in journalism for their coverage of China’s Tiananmen Square democracy revolt, Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn are a team at work and in private life. The Chinese proverb “Women hold up half the sky” summarizes the content of Half the Sky – How to Change the World. The idealistic subtitle is almost a deterrent to read the book. Do not be deterred.
Kristof and WuDunn have explored at large the whys and hows of the oppressed condition of women in Asia and Africa, and the solutions to change it.
In the context of SoFiA, one might ask “what does that have to do with religion?” The underlying premise is that the only value in women is their preserved hymen. As it is stated in Judeo-Christian religious texts;
“If a man takes a wife, after lying with her dislikes her and slanders her and gives her a bad name, saying, ‘I married this woman, but when I approached her, I did not find proof of her virginity,’ then the girl’s father and mother...shall display the cloth [that the couple slept on] before the elders of the town...If, however, the charge is true and no proof of the girl’s virginity can be found, she shall be brought to the door of her father’s house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death.” Deuteronomy 22:13-21
No wonder some people shy away from the organized agenda of religion.
Other than such Judeo-Christian moral precepts a related view is expressed in this neo-Confucian saying: “For a woman to starve to death is a small matter, but for her to lose her chastity is a calamity”. And from ancient Greece the Athens lawgiver Solon, ordered that “no Athenian could be sold into slavery save for a woman who had lost her virginity before marriage”... and so on.
Emphasis on sexual honour is today a major reason for violence against women. The shame of loss of honour was a worldwide concept for many centuries, and in many parts - too many- of our modern world it still is a reality.
A reality so harshly punished that reading about it sends shivers down your spine; but just keep reading.
It is not a feminist book, it is a book based on journalistic objective facts, relating first hand testimonies. While reading it you will swing between despair and hope and yes, it is about changing the condition of women in most parts of the world. But how?
From honour killings, to prostitution (of women by women), to maternal mortality, to excision, to gang rapes, to starvation (when men in the same family are well fed), to female infant murdering, to other atrocities women are subjected to, Kristof and WuDunn’s survey is exhaustive. They are right, things have to change.
They suggest one should do some work in the field to fully understand the situation, but in my view, reading the book is a good start.
Incidentally a university professor friend of mine who recommended the book said to me “We, the West, are the exception”. I question “Are we really?” Were not Western women, not so long ago, supposed to keep their virginity until their wedding night? Did not some Western women obey their parents who had pre-arranged their marriage?
Half the Sky is very much a book for today’s global citizens. It contains facts and statistics global citizens cannot ignore: one hundred and twenty two million women worldwide cannot access contraception.
In that instance the Vatican is the criminal; reassuringly in some parts of Africa it has its own dissidents. Nevertheless the situation calls for family planning to reduce the 40
of globally unwanted pregnancies. It calls for much more. Indeed there is much else to do to change the world: set up grassroots rural programs to educate women, give them the opportunity to earn a living which transforms their lives, support individual women to grow out of poverty, knowing they help each other. This is how they will show men they have their own intrinsic value.
Half the Sky is a praise of women’s resilience. Their courage is exemplary and we have every right to think that recovery out of male oppression is at the end of the road. Women are mothers and through their example they can raise a new generation of hope and recovery. Kristof and WuDunn do not always praise humanitarian aid programs because those ‘tinker with cultures, religions and family situations that we, Westerners, do not fully understand’. They could be right.
Overall, when it comes to humanitarian aid programs the book is biased towards the United States. One gets the impression that there are only American programs that bring aid to these countries.
However Kristof and WuDunn’s professional experience compels them to relate the facts in a journalistic approach. It is so well informed it could be mistaken for sensationalism but it is not. There is compassion and humaneness in their approach.
Their mission is to call for, amongst other, a bridge between the secular and the religious in devising a gospel of social justice and individual morality. And they suggest solutions other than humanitarian aid programs to come to the rescue; they prescribe that we “save the world, one woman at a time.”
One can reach the end of the book hating the male gender; one could extend that hatred to other races. I reached the final page with a feeling of hope, and an increasing feeling of contempt towards religions.
It is the resilience of women which sounds promising. Whilst ‘women hold up half the sky’, it is tempting to conclude that it is they who hold most of the other half as well. An essential read for both genders. An inspirational book for those who might wish to take action.