Book offers insight into oppression of women

Women suffer too much. Too often they are robbed of autonomy, through slavery or some versions of marriage; too often they are executed for being raped; too often their lives are snuffed out before they can even speak. A new book, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, analyzes these trends and tells the stories of people who challenged them.

The authors, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, won a Pulitzer prize for their coverage of the Chinese democracy movement and the related massacre in Tiananmen Square—both for the value of their reporting and the quality of their writing itself. They are the only husband-wife pair to have been given the award, and Kristof has since won a second Pulitzer for his editorial work in the New York Times. The pair has a long history of investigating and reporting about the suffering of the dispossessed, many of whom are women. The logical structure of the book takes advantage of this expertise; each chapter consists of two sections devoted to the same issue, with the first addressing the broad facts and the second containing an illustrative story.

For example, one of the chapters discusses the use of rape as a tool or a weapon to control women and their families. In Kenya, female political candidates are often gang-raped, discouraging them and discrediting them in the eyes of many Kenyans. In the general section, the authors enumerate this and many other trends and describe the logic behind them. The second half of the chapter tells the story of Mukhtar Mei, a Pakistani villager who, after being sentenced to gang-rape by her village council for a crime she did not commit, used the truth to fight back. She embarrassed the Pakistani government and eventually founded many schools for rural Pakistani villages.

Another excellent chapter addresses the education of women and girls. Kristof and WuDunn first establish the fundamental primacy of education to economic and human development. Then, the authors present an impressive amount of research about education and development aid in general. They identify both the potential and the common pitfalls of foreign aid, giving detailed examples of the harm that aid can do when poorly tested and assessed. The highlight of the chapter, though, is a series of examples of astonishingly cost-effective strategies for increasing school attendance in developing countries. The research behind these claims is largely drawn from MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, which all but guarantees its accuracy.

Another particularly interesting pair of chapters explores the complex relationship between religion and empowerment of women. The first of these is about the positive and damaging effects that American Evangelicalism has had on aid for women globally. The second chapter addresses supposed effects of Islam on the status and power of women. In these chapters, Kristof and WuDunn collect a great variety of sometimes conflicting ideas. Their argument is not without logical problems, but as in the book at large, the vast amount of information the authors provide speaks for itself.

Despite the ineffable brutality it describes, Half the Sky brims with hope. As heartbreaking as the truth about slavery, maternal mortality, and the like may be, for every such evil the authors have a story of a person or group who has had immense success fighting it. Though WuDunn and Kristof do not include a set of instructions, the men and women they describe lead by example. Thus, Half the Sky strikes a balance between truthfulness and hope—it unflinchingly describes the cruelty inflicted upon women worldwide, but leaves the reader optimistic and even prepared to fight the injustices that too many women suffer.