HALF THE SKY: TURNING OPPRESSION INTO OPPORTUNITY FOR WOMEN WORLDWIDE
So a couple months ago, giddy with having my first full-time job, but already feeling intellectually understimulated from the lack of university work to avoid doing, I stumbled into that great bookshop on Bourke Street. Near Parliament House with the very aesthetic black and white sign, and crammed full of various works in a style reminiscent of a secondhand bookshop, but where everything is quite new. Difficult to navigate, but a joy to lose yourself in. In my highly suggestible state, one of an armful of books I took home with me was Nicholas D. Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn’s Half the Sky. I hesitated over it for some time, worrying that the book might have a white saviour complex and would thus turn out to be a disappointment[*]. In the end, though, I decided it was easy to read and so if I hated it, it would at least be quickly dealt with.
Half the Sky is what will hopefully be a portrait of humanity at the beginning of the 21st century. Of the world’s people, women are still overwhelmingly more likely to be under-educated, under- or completely unpaid for their work, and face discrimination on every front. In many parts of the world, girls are less likely to be born in the first place[†], and from the moment of their birth are provided less nutrition and less healthcare than boys.
Fortunately, it’s not all bad news for my fellow women[‡], because Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists Kristoff and WuDunn are here to call us to arms to be part of a “global movement” to liberate the world’s women. If you think that sounds awfully like feminism, you wouldn’t be wrong, but the word “feminism” is barely brought up, and this is one of the issues I had with the book. I spent some time speculating on why feminism isn’t mentioned until quite late in the book, and then only glancingly. I suspect it is because “feminism” is still a big, scary word. Kristoff and WuDunn didn’t want their book to be dismissed as merely “feminist” because they wanted men to read it. Instead of the feminist struggle, the authors instead use the 18th century anti-slave campaign of William Wilberforce as a metaphor for women’s liberation. A lot.
By distancing themselves from the feminist movement, Kristoff and WuDunn create an unnecessary divide between feminism and the global liberation of women. It implies that all feminism is white feminism[§]; that not only are the struggles of women in more developed countries purely frivolous, but that feminist movements in developing countries shouldn’t really be considered as such because they have life and death issues to deal with. In fact the only time feminism is really mentioned is in relation to what they term “Islamic feminists”, in what reads as a rush to ensure no one can accuse them of being Islamophobic[**]*****.
Despite their avoidance of the term “feminist”, though, Half the Sky does face the risk of nonetheless falling into white feminism. For the most part the authors work hard to avoid it. They illustrate the state of womankind c. 2009, giving a good overview of the problems faced by women in impoverished areas and of the various charities and other NGOs working to assist women in lifting themselves out of the poverty trap. Largely — and justifiably — dismissive of the role of national governments and the UN in achieving actual change, Kristoff and WuDunn focus on grass-roots movements such as programs assisting women out of sex slavery; anti-AIDS workers; foundation hospitals for the treatment of fistulas; microfinance banks; and any number of other small organisations run by local women to improve life for their friends, neighbours and countrywomen.
However, the book relies on frequent reassurances about the role of white money in saving these organisations. Each chapter is divided into two parts. The first describes the life of a woman or several women, their struggle, their liberation or their process to create an organisation, and provides a small discussion of the background of that particular issue for women. The second part goes on to describe a noble American’s role in achieving this particular goal. Of course I don’t have an issue with anyone donating to charity or travelling overseas to make a meaningful contribution through volunteering[††]******. Please, do give to the organisations featured in this book. Give to other organisations. If you have meaningful skills and the luxury of time and money to do so, please volunteer! But I frequently rolled my eyes at how effusively this book praises the white middle class donors who swoop in to help foreign women reach their goals.
I can understand the emphasis on American contributions, and the hesitance to say the F-word, given the book’s goal is to bring white Americans to the cause. I just wish it wasn’t necessary to provide such an ego massage to people before they can be mobilised. I’m also not sure whether it is necessary. And there is little note taken of the possibility that some organisations could be either independent of American money, or resistant to American aid programs.
There is also very little information given about the context of women’s struggles in the developing world, through colonial and post-colonial unrest and various other social changes, or through economic discrimination on the macro scale. The chapter entitled, “Is Islam Misogynistic”, for example, takes care to dispel some stereotypes about the religion but also presents the relatively modern fundamentalist Wahhabi movement as a reflection of medieval Islam and as something which is and was universal of all areas in the Islamist world. Simply hand-waving the worst oppression of women as something that has been a global constant, and portraying the liberation of women as a linear progression, ignores the complexities of history and of women’s constantly changing roles in all societies. Surely understanding the roots of oppression is part of the solution.
On the question of poverty, Kristoff and WuDunn praise the efforts of microfinance organisations and encourage American investment in them, but they also chide the poor for spending their money on frivolities such as alcohol and gambling instead of more long-term benefits such as educating their children. In doing this they fail to understand the mechanics of poverty. I have been fortunate enough never to have been seriously, cripplingly poor, even when without work, and I doubt either Kristoff or WuDunn have ever been poor, either. Rescue from the poverty trap seems a simple matter when viewed from above — but the reality is, sacrificing the solitary small pleasures a life of poverty affords is much harder than it would initially appear. Of course it is more sensible in the long-run to finance a child’s education, but there remain so many variables in a child’s education; investment in education is much more likely to fail in a poor region of a poor country. It is understandable that some parents simply don’t see the point in trying, and instead focus their attentions on deriving whatever temporary joy they can from their money when they have it. Preaching temperance also ignores the possibility that activities such as regular alcohol consumption or gambling is viewed as a necessity of male participation in the community. By excluding themselves from such activities in favour of their daughters’ education, men might risk ridicule and even ostracism. The fact is, finding a true, long term escape from familial poverty is much more complicated than merely saving money on drinks.
All in all, I found this book quite shallow and simplistic. That said, the book is probably not written for people who are already familiar with the diversity of feminisms and of the global feminist struggle. It is an introductory reader which should stimulate investigation and not be taken on its own. It also contains useful information about the kinds of organisations which exist, need support, and have a genuine need for volunteers. For popularising those, at least, this book deserves praise.
[*] Having said that, as a white person, perhaps I, too have a white saviour complex. And of course I am ill-placed to spot more subtle racial paternalism, try as I might.
[†] Even accounting for the biological bias towards boys in general, theorised to have come about because early human men were more likely to die before they had a chance to breed — but I take most paleoanthroplogical sex determinism with a grain of salt.
[‡] Sadly this book only focuses on dfab (designated female at birth) cis (persons who identify as the gender they were designated at birth) women.
[§] That is, feminism which assumes the ultimate goals for women’s liberation is the same everywhere, and which does not account for differences in culture, religion, ethnicity or other diversifying features of humankind in general.
[**] And not being Islamophobic is definitely preferable, don’t get me wrong.
[††] There is a lot of praise and encouragement for voluntourism in this book, though, and that is an entirely separate issue about which people with more experience in the area have already written. The basic facts are that voluntourism frequently achieves the opposite of what it advertises, creating a burden on local resources and even increasing the workload for local people. In other places, voluntourism is frequently used as a scam. Paying to volunteer in a Cambodian orphanage, for example, can provide a lot of money to those who run the orphanage, but not much to the actual orphans, and contributes to the exploitation of Cambodian children. Research into organisations accepting volunteers, before volunteering, is vital.