A Better Half: Young Feminists Can Rewrite Half the Sky

In many ways, Half the Sky has occupied much of the consciousness of what can loosely be defined as the newest “generation” of Western feminists. It is assigned routinely in college classrooms. While it has stimulated students in the U.S. to think about women’s issues at a global level, it does so at the expense of feminisms that have, over the past few decades, attempted to recognize and correct abuses of privilege by Westerners conducted in the name of “third world women”.

Looking at the bestseller from the vantage point of a young feminist, one passage captures much of what is problematic about Half the Sky. Discussing ways that readers could get involved, the authors warn, “American feminism must become less parochial, so that it is every bit as concerned with sex slavery in Asia as with Title IX in Illinois… Likewise, Americans of faith should try as hard to save the lives of African women as the lives of unborn fetuses.”

Somehow discussing the obstacles faced by women globally without any mention of colonialism, past or present, Kristof and WuDunn systematically dichotomize the West and “the rest” through such passages.

First, the passage reduces American feminism to an issue that barely begins to shed light on various forms of oppression in many women’s lives today – forms of oppression that are gendered, and also defined by race, class, able-bodiedness, and so forth.

Second, the passage relieves the reader of undertaking any immediate action by creating distance between her (and her apparently post-feminist American existence) and the issues at hand.

Third, Kristof and WuDunn fail to emphasize the importance of Westerners acting as facilitators or supporters of actions led by women at the grassroots themselves. By stepping in, and effectively stepping on local women, to create their own initiatives, the chance for cross-border solidarity is destroyed. This dichotomy reprises the historical legacies of colonial calls to action revolving around purportedly irreconcilable differences between “civilizer” and “uncivilized.”

The passage also argues for a space in global feminism for people who believe that the lives of unborn fetuses are equivalent to those of African women.  According to the Guttmacher Institute, out of the 5.6 million abortions carried out in Africa in 2003, only 100,000 were performed under safe conditions, a direct result of the fact that 92% of female-bodied people of childbearing age in Africa live in countries that have restrictive abortion laws. The World Health Organization estimates that 1 in 7 maternal deaths in Africa are caused by unsafe abortions. Including anti-choice politics in a book that spends two full chapters on the gravity of maternal mortality seems contradictory, given the statistics. More to the point, it stymies any productive discussion on the struggle for control over women’s bodies and bodily agency as part of all issues examined in Half the Sky.

Throughout Half the Sky, Kristof and WuDunn refuse to acknowledge any relationships among capitalism, colonial and postcolonial globalized economies, and gendered inequality. For example, at one point they argue, “The factories prefer young women, perhaps because they’re more docile and perhaps because their small fingers are more nimble for assembly or sewing. So the rise of manufacturing has generally raised the opportunities and the status of women. The implication is that instead of denouncing sweatshops, we in the west should be encouraging manufacturing in poor countries, particularly in Africa and the Muslim world.”

Half the Sky argues that sexism is to be found only in far-removed places, that the noble effort of combating sexism in these far-removed places is available to everyone and requires no critical self-analysis or questioning of one’s understanding of women as they exist in their own locality or politics, and that by replacing one kind of oppression with one that benefits industrialized countries, sexism has somehow been defeated.

This cannot become the dominant narrative for young feminists.

And yet it is.

Half the Sky has succeeded in garnering attention towards women’s issues, but its strategies are limiting and ultimately dangerous. How do we retain the momentum and critically, and politically, address the problems?

There must be a way to gain support for feminism that doesn’t rely on easily “marketable” ideas. For now, Half the Sky is the platform we have. We must surround it with other conversations, discussions that press global feminist activists to take responsibility for our actions, including our mistakes. That would be a first step.

(Photo Credit: Young Feminist Wire)

A Better Half: A New Nose, And a Life Changed?

In Afghan culture noses symbolize respect and pride. A man who feels stripped of his pride by “his woman’s” immoral act of trespassing cultural limits and ignoring traditional norms conceptualizes this as his nose being cut. He in turn cuts “his woman’s” nose. Looking at a beautiful but “noseless” face with piercing eyes looking at you, how can anyone resist sympathy, compassion and an eagerness to help in any way possible?

Helping may be a general human instinct. However most “helpers” make choices on their own assumptions concerning the situation of the ones who need help. How could we know that our help is the help which is needed; how do we know our help is effective?

I agree with Krisof and WuDunn who claim in their book Half the Sky that saving one woman makes a difference, at least in that woman’s life.  However, it also makes me think about Bibi Ayesha, the girl with a mutilated nose on the cover of Time magazine in August 2010. She was maimed; punished for running away from an abusing, baad marriage (a marriage in which a girl is given to solve a dispute). She was helped by American doctors in Kabul and then sent to the United States to undergo plastic surgery to be “given“ a new nose.

Those who do not /cannot speak for themselves – someone will speak for them. Where is Ayesha’s voice? A deeper epistemological and political analysis comes through by replacing the term image with that of representation, representation as providing a likeness or replica for that which it is subject. Representation does not stand for, or as, the original subject itself but rather for its meaning. Representation poses the question of who speaks for whom and which one person stands for the entire group.

Ayesha became an image that represents Afghan women, all Afghan women. And when we see an empty hole on a face where a nose should be, the first thing that comes to minds is covering it.  And now our part is done. Ayesha has a new plastic nose.

But have we really helped? What have we changed? It reminds me of a joke. A man was at the beach when he heard a drowning person cry for help. He jumped into the water and saved him. He had just reached the shore when he heard another cry for help. He saved this one, too. This happened several times and he was saving one after another. What’s the joke? The man never realized that there was someone on a cliff near by pushing people into the sea.

How many noses can we give to “noseless women”? Kristof and WuDunn claim that donating a goat can make a change in a family’s lives, or educating women can make them autonomous. Maybe, but what if the new nose makes her face itch? The irritation might make her throw it away.

Women live not only in families. We live in a larger political, economic and cultural domain. Most developing countries are war torn, entangled in poor economies, and caught amidst international or regional politics. This has left those countries with a continuum of the culture of patriarchy and violation against women. How effective could it be to help individual women by giving them loans, donating a goat, or giving a new nose; whilst in most of these societies according to De Beauvoir, “humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him; she is not regarded an autonomous being”? How can a dependent “other” be addressed while ignoring the “self”?

When I became a feminist and became engaged in women’s rights advocacy, I wanted to change people’s minds, to help or at least “save” one friend. But sometimes when we don’t consider the pros and cons and do not understand the situation and the culture, we might make things worse rather than better. I ended up trying to encourage a friend to step up against her parents and say no to a forced marriage. My only intention was to help, but my ideas and beliefs, coming from an educated and open-minded family, ended up in a broken friendship and a forced marriage. I learned the hard way. There are people on the cliffs pushing women into the sea. We should not forget them.

(Photo Credit: ABC News)

A Better Half: The Poverty Onion

Anthropologist Clifford Geertz thought that to understand the world, you had to understand an onion.

It is the concept of social embeddedness.  The only way to understand an onion is as a whole; peeling back layers will never lead to a core – only more layers, and watering eyes.  Geertz was writing about culture, but feminist scholars Ellen Ross and Rayna Rapp made the same point about sexuality: it cannot be removed from social layers of family, politics, media, economics, religion, world systems.

Since reading Kristof and WuDunn’s Half the Sky, I have been thinking about the poverty onion.  The global women’s oppression onion.   The violence against women onion.

In their book, Kristof and WuDunn tell urgent, compelling, personal stories about individual women – primarily in poor countries – struggling to overcome poverty and violence.  They are inspiring writers that make readers want to act.  As a former nonprofit fundraiser, I know the power of these stories.  (I also know the danger of turning lives into stories.)

Yet with this kind of writing, we always have the responsibility of asking questions like who is speaking for whom?  What kind of picture are they painting?   Do they show the problems women are facing as rooted only in individuals (i.e. sex traffickers) or do they show larger systems that act to constrain agency?  Is there an examination of structural causes?  Can one woman’s struggles be separated from economic influences, cultural influences, global trade agreements being negotiated an ocean away?  Can one woman’s struggles be separated from the world?

In other words, are they writing about the onion, or an imaginary onion core?

In a chapter about sex work and sex trafficking, WuDunn and Kristof write: “We’re not arguing that Westerners should take up this cause because it’s the fault of the West… This is not a case where we in the West have a responsibility to lead because we’re the source of the problem.  Rather, we single out the West because, even though we’re peripheral to the slavery, our action is necessary to overcome a horrific evil” (24-25).

Is the West not at all implicated or connected to sex work in poor countries?  This view ignores unjust global economic systems – and how the poverty that is influenced by these systems affects decisions individual women make about sex work.  Kristof and WuDunn’s argument that it is not our fault in the West that women are in these situations – but that we should do the right thing and help them – is a framework that leaves people in rich countries as the central and powerful figures and women in poor countries as objects.  Truly feminist work should disrupt, rather than reproduce, terms of domination.

But how do we as people who are concerned about global women’s issues do that?  Is it ever okay to speak or act for others?  Philosopher Linda Alcoff writes that “there is a strong, albeit contested, current within feminism which holds that speaking for others – even for other women – is arrogant, vain, unethical, and politically illegitimate.”   At the same time, she notes that sometimes not speaking for others poses similar ethical questions: “If I don’t speak for those less privileged than myself, am I abandoning my political responsibility to speak out against oppression, a responsibility incurred by the very fact of my privilege?….Is my greatest contribution to move over and get out of the way?”

Alcoff warns of the dangers of what she calls this “retreat response” – the retreating into a position of ‘I can only speak for myself.’  While the neo-imperialistic overtones of speaking for or acting for others is evident, so too is the danger, politically and ethically, of an individualistic and isolationist retreat response.

I do not think that our greatest contribution should be to move over and get out of the way.

Nor do I think feminists should cast aside this book because of its shortcomings.  When I mentioned Half the Sky in an undergraduate class, a few of my 18 and 19-year-old students stayed after class to tell me how Kristof and WuDunn’s book had moved them, made them take a Women’s Studies class, or learn more about violence against women worldwide.  In the end, what I struggle with is how we can best work with the energy and inspiration the book generates.

Despite – or perhaps because of – feminist critiques of Half the Sky, what can we do with the fact that thousands of people are holding this book in their hands?  How can we best harness the fact that this is a bestseller?   That we as a country are reading something about global violence against women, and use that as a jumping off point for a more in-depth dialogue about power, patriarchy, economics, and justice?

How can we start to talk about the poverty onion?

(Photo Credit: The Atlantic / SPKW / Shuttercock)