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The Other Half

I’ve admired the work of Nicholas Kristof, columnist for the New York Times, for quite a while. I appreciate his tireless work of speaking up like few can about the plight of the poor and oppressed. It was only a matter of time, then, before I got around to reading the recent bestseller he wrote with his wife, Sheryl WuDunn. It’s called Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.

The book is excellently written, as one might expect from a Pulitzer Prize-winning duo, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to read. The stories of unthinkable hardship endured by women are sobering, if not depressing. The scope of the problem is immense, from sex trafficking to honor killings to rape to an utter lack of opportunity in decision-making at times in even the smallest matters. But fortunately, we’re presented with examples – though often small, isolated, and under-funded – of remarkable women making a real difference within their spheres of influence.

I am grateful for the contribution this book makes and it’s quite encouraging to me that in an era of books like Twilight and I Hope They Serve Beer In Hell, a book of substance about difficult but important matters becomes a national bestseller. I hope millions more read it.

But I do have a couple of criticisms. The title comes from the Chinese proverb, “Women hold up half the sky.” And of course it’s an overdue thing to focus a book like this on the half of the world population that is, to a greater or lesser extent, largely oppressed. But while it’s not at all politically correct to do so, I have to wonder, what about those who hold up the other half of the sky? The contributions that women can and do make to society are legion, and it’s undeniable in the field of international development and aid that women have an exponentially better track record in many areas. It’s no accident that the vast majority of microloan recipients in developing nations, for instance, are women.

But borrowing from the pages of groundbreaking Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, the oppressors need liberation just as much as the oppressed. Indeed, history has repeatedly shown that when oppressed peoples “rise up” in a revolution of any sort, it’s not all that surprising when the tables turn, the roles reverse, and we’re left not with peace and justice but with nothing more than a new set of oppressors and oppressed. We need to do better than that. So, as a matter of principle, I wish Kristof and WuDunn would have focused a bit more on what it might look like for men and women to begin holding up the sky together, cooperatively, with mutual respect. As it is, very little is said about the role men should play in the world they envision. (Interestingly, I should add, the tagline on the book website reads, “Women aren’t the problem, they’re the solution along with men.” Perhaps since publication they have given mutuality some additional thought.)

There’s another sense in which the book fails – or paradoxically illustrates – its moniker. As one who grew up in Latin America and whose work involves a daily analysis of media coverage of world events, it is clear to me that Latin America doesn’t get a sliver of the attention it deserves. Apart from beheadings in Mexico and the latest inflammatory sound bites from Chavez, one is consistently hard-pressed to find out through traditional media what’s taking place south of the United States on the American continent. Kristof and WuDunn, unfortunately, don’t help matters. The stories of oppression and opportunity they tell are largely from Africa and Asia, with a few examples from the Middle East and the very occasional reference to Latin America. So if you’re interested in those who hold up the sky in the western half of the world, you’ll have to look elsewhere, and I’m warning you now: it might take some work.

All things considered, however, Half the Sky is excellent, challenging, at times sickening, eventually inspiring, and all around quite important.

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1 Comment so far

  1. Awesome insight! As a Latin American woman, I specially agree with that last point you made. I look forward to reading your future posts!

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