An ancient Chinese proverb goes that women hold up half the sky. Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn want that to be appreciated — on the ground. In the opening pages of this gripping call to conscience, the husband-and-wife team come out swinging: “Gendercide,” the daily slaughter of girls in the developing world, steals more lives in any given decade “than all the genocides of the 20th century.” No wonder Kristof and WuDunn, whose coverage of China for The New York Times won them a Pulitzer Prize, declare the global struggle for women’s equality “the paramount moral challenge” of our era.
Their stories in “Half the Sky” bear witness to that bold claim. Kristof and WuDunn describe Dalit women, Indian untouchables, who swarmed, stabbed and emasculated a serial torturer and murderer — in a courtroom. Further north, Mukhtar Mai, the victim of a Pakistani gang-rape, did the unthinkable for a Muslim village woman. Not only did she expose her assailants, but she incurred the wrath of her country’s president, Pervez Musharraf, endured abduction by his henchmen, started a school and even made an ally of her resentful older brother.
“Half the Sky” tackles atrocities and indignities from sex trafficking to maternal mortality, from obstetric fistulas to acid attacks, and absorbing the fusillade of horrors can feel like an assault of its own. But the poignant portraits of survivors humanize the issues, divulging facts that moral outrage might otherwise eclipse.
Men, for example, aren’t always the culprits. “In Meena’s brothel,” Kristof and WuDunn report of an Indian girl forced into prostitution, “the tyrant was the family matriarch, Ainul Bibi. Sometimes Ainul would beat the girls herself, and sometimes she would delegate the task to her daughter-in-law or to her sons.” The narratives respect nuance, revealing both the range of barriers and the possibility for solutions.
Throughout, Kristof and WuDunn show faith in the capacity of ordinary citizens, including Americans, to initiate change — gutsy at a time when many Westerners who voice concern are ritually accused of interfering. Mingling tales of woe with testimonials to people power, the authors explain how tragedy can spawn opportunity. Their hope: “To recruit you to join an incipient movement to emancipate women.”
Little-known Westerners — doctors, teachers and students — serve as role models. Harper McConnell is a University of Minnesota graduate. Fresh out of college, she broke up with her boyfriend and entered the dating desert of Congo to oversee her church’s relationship with a hospital for women. “At the age of 23, Harper became the principal of her own school,” Kristof and WuDunn write about this young American who “jabbers away in Swahili.”
But “Half the Sky” prescribes some tough medicine: To be effective on behalf of invisible women overseas, Americans must “bridge the God Gulf.” That is, secular humanists will have to forge common cause with religious believers, emulating an era “when liberal deists and conservative evangelicals joined forces to overthrow slavery.”
Kristof and WuDunn repeatedly invoke the abolitionist project. Besides stirring emotions, the antislavery lens permits Americans to see an urgent obligation. When the West cares as much about sex slavery as it does about pirated DVDs, India “will dispatch people to the borders to stop traffickers,” they predict. “We single out the West because, even though we’re peripheral to the slavery, our action is necessary to overcome a horrific evil.” As proof, they detail how American diplomats and Congress spurred the Cambodian police to crack down on brothel owners. “Simply asking questions put the issue on the agenda.”
So it comes as a disappointment when Kristof and WuDunn seem to cut short their own questions. They entitle one of their chapters “Is Islam Misogynistic?” Their answer: Because ultraconservative Saudi Arabia has outlawed slaves, the Koran must be open to progressive interpretations on other human rights issues, like women’s equality.
The trouble is, laws ring hollow if they’re not enforced, something Kristof and WuDunn robustly recognize about female genital mutilation in Africa. Why not acknowledge the same about Saudi Arabia’s often appalling treatment of female domestic workers, whose condition Human Rights Watch has deemed “slavery-like”? Could their silence be traced to the “scolding” that Kristof received from a group of Muslim women in Riyadh?
One of them insists to him that Saudi Arabia’s ban on female drivers, and the related effects of a profoundly patriarchal culture, “are our problems, not yours.” Kristof doesn’t appear to question her. Yet later, he and WuDunn link “the boom in Muslim terrorists” to “the broader marginalization of women,” recalling that the ringleader of the 9/11 hijackers cited a teaching about well-endowed virgins awaiting male martyrs in heaven.
Clearly, a connection can be drawn between global security and certain cultural customs in the Middle East. In that case, Muslim women’s problems are everyone’s problems. Despite all their reminders of our interdependence as humans, Kristof and WuDunn miss an excellent chance to help fellow progressives build backbone.
Perhaps a different encounter should be arranged for the two authors — with a Muslim woman in Sweden who hides immigrant Arab girls threatened by honor killings. She told me that many Western feminists condemn her because, she believes, they care more about looking tolerant than about saving lives. In confronting the failings of multiculturalism, secularists could move forward with evangelicals, as abolitionists did almost 200 years ago. Imagine the potential for progress.