Last week I met with friends to discuss Half the Sky, by Pulitzer-prize winning American journalists Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. I mentioned the book for the first time in International Women’s Day: Ordinary Extraordinary Women and since then, many people I know decided to buy the book, whether it is the English or the French edition (published in France in April 2010 by Les Arènes). I also received several emails from people who read my post (on this blog or on the Sama Gazette) who wanted to share with me their opinion. So I decided to organize a meeting with friends and acquaintances to know more about what they thought of the book and it was enriching. Let me first quickly introduce Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. It is a great book about the reality many women in the world are facing everyday. It focuses on three particular abuses: sex trafficking and forced prostitution; gender-based violence, including honor killings and mass rape; and maternal mortality. Life is indeed hard for many women around the world, in case you didn’t notice yet.
We all came with our books, some took notes, some others annotated so they could recall the key information. Others simply used highlighters; everyone read the book and had many things to say about it. So we were ready to discuss Half the Sky, which most of them (French people) told me they decided to buy after I mentioned it; I was flattered to have such an influence but I was eager to know if they thought my advice was worth it. The first one to take the floor was a man in his Sixties and the discussion started on a controversial note, what he said literally aroused the wrath of the women around the table: ‘Women are now fully empowered, they don’t need to be defended anymore. Excepted for women in poor countries or at wars!‘. It was hard to believe André (it is his name) actually read the book. But then someone said: ‘The book is great but it made my feel even more powerless…’. When I asked why, an explanation was given by a very emotional Nicolas, a twenty-six years old man who had been an aid worker for two years in Rwanda: ‘I already knew most of the stories told by Kristof and WuDunn; rapes, prostitution, gender-based violence are very common is some part of the world. The plight of women can be very different from a country to another so it makes some people think women living in France should be happy not to have these problems. This is why it creates a misunderstanding between the two worlds’. This is not the first time someone who worked in the field told me that. There is a gap between what they see and live, and what we live in our little bubble.
So when you say women are also facing domestic violence and rapes in our own country, people have to realize it is even worse for other women. And in a way, it diminishes (or even negates) the empathy one can have for the atrocities women live in Congo or Ghana. And I think it is the core of the problem when it comes to raise awareness and get people to take action. Such atrocities are like anesthetic and we are easily overwhelmed by the awful stories. This is when some people look away and consider women in developed countries have the power; even if they have reasons to complain sometimes, it is nothing compared to the horrendous abuse other women suffer. This is a pervert effect I have observed so many times: how can you compare gender wage disparity to mass rape? To maternal mortality ? I don’t compare, ever, nothing is comparable to the horrible life these women live but is it a reason to deny other women the right to fight for their rights? There are also rapes and wife killings in France, in the United States, in England and yet if there is no comparison to make between the situations, the violence against women has the same roots even if not the same modus operandi. There is a ladder in the level of atrocities (despite the numbing effect) but women are all the same when they are broken, they still are human beings. Half the Sky, Chapter Thirteen, Grassroots vs. Treetops: ‘Are women human yet? If women were human, would we be a cash drop shipped from Thailand in containers into New York’s brothels…? Would our genitals be sliced out to ‘cleanse’ us…? When will women be human? When?’ –Catherine A. Mackinnon, Are women Human?
‘There are so many individual stories in Half the Sky, when you start reading the book, you can’t stop reading it until it is finished’, said Marie. The book is indeed very well written and very well documented. Everyone appreciated a lot the Appendix and the many references to books, organizations, people, articles. How could we expect less from two Pulitzer-prize winning American journalists anyway? Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn explain how it is possible to do something and not wait for others to do it for us, and their stories show it is possible to make a difference. They even tell us the four steps we can take in the next ten minutes. We -ordinary people- can change things. I was happy to hear a young woman saying: ‘Half the Sky is the practical illustration of how tall oaks from little acorns grow’, referring to my post quoting the expression. Just like it is difficult to compare situations between women living in developed countries to the ones living in developing countries (although the delimitation is not so clear like I demonstrated earlier), many people around me feel so powerless they don’t even try to understand what this is all about. Here is what I wrote in my post Darfur: a World Wide Role Playing Game: ‘Can we always simplify a given situation the same way we leave out parameters to simplify the form of an equation in mathematics? This oversimplification helps to quickly spread a message among the masses and to bring a short-term awareness but avoiding all the parameters, dismissing what might be the core of the problem, removing ‘la substantifique moëlle‘ could doom any effort of grasping to failure. Because to have an entire and accurate understanding of a given situation, we can’t just put aside facts only because they are too numerous or because we think they are insignificant. On the contrary, they allow us to fully size up the complexity of the problem and to get the ins and outs of the situation because they are often deeply intertwined.’
If everyone in the group seemed to be satisfied by the book, considering it an eye-opening (excepted for one or two who were already well aware of the stories) but on my part, the only caveat I see to this global enthusiasm generated by Half the Sky is that there are no numbers in the book, no statistics but ‘only’ a moving collection of individual stories. It is perfect to reach a broader audience but it definitely leaves many people unsatisfied. Poverty clearly underpins women’s slavery and it is not addressed by the book. The root causes have disappeared behind the stories and the fact the authors want the readers to feel positive and to engage people. Half the Sky is not a book from which you will learn and understand, it is engaging and about to give more than enough reasons to the readers to take initiatives of their own or to support organizations. On that point, Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn succeeded perfectly. But I still think if you don’t explain the reasons and put the situations into perspective, then there can’t be no lasting solutions. And if of course I am the first one to say (never saying it enough) tall oaks from little acorns grow, I still think an oversimplification deserves the global understanding, as mentioned in The power of carrot and stick: reductio ad absurdum?. Half the Sky was not meant for a global understanding in the strictest sense of the word but it is a call to action; if you want to debate geopolitical issues then buy another book. Not that Kristof and WuDunn don’t know anything about geopolitical issues, on the contrary, but they made the choice to reach a broader audience and they had to simplify, lighten, focus first on the stories.
I enjoy reading Kristof’s insightful NY Times articles and if you do too, then you won’t be deceived nor disoriented by the book. You can also watch Sheryl WuDunn’s talk on TED.com: Our century’s greatest injustice.
This reading group was a great experience and at least half of the readers decided to do something. I will of course provide a follow up on their actions. Note that Nicholas D. Kristof is looking for examples of people who, after watching the Oprah shows on “Half the Sky” or reading the book, actually did something interesting. It might be starting a giving club, or traveling abroad for an aid group, or sponsoring a school, or whatever. Any great examples? More on Kristof’s Facebook page.
Following the post published on the Sama Gazette, I received many emails about The Enough Moment by John Prendergast and Don Cheadle. I already read the book and I have many things to say about it. The book is now on sale in the U.S and also in France on Amazon. I would be happy to set up another reading group to talk together about The Enough Moment. So if you are interested to share your thoughts about the book, you can go on this page and let me know. I will be busy in the next weeks so it will leave you some time to read the book and be ready for the meeting!