In the last sixty years, women in Western countries and to a lesser extent the rest of the world have become outspoken about women's rights, demanding equal rights in political, economic, cultural, social, and domestic spheres. Their struggles and activism, generally known as feminist movements, helped to elevate the status of women in many countries. Yet, as Nicholas D. Kristoff and Sheryl Wudunn document in their book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, the struggle for gender equality is far from over. Kristoff and Wudunn demonstrate the deeply troubling picture of gender relations around the world where women and girls are systematically subjected to brutality, mistreatment, and discrimination. In their attempt to expose gender inequality in the world, Kristoff and Wudunn are largely successful, but their analysis is not well-grounded in feminist scholarship, which weakens their argumentation.
Kristoff and Wudunn set two main goals in writing their book. First, they want to raise awareness by showing that the mistreatment of women and girls has reached catastrophic proportions. For example, they note, "more girls have been killed in the last fifty years, precisely because they were girls, than men were killed in all the wars of the twentieth century. More girls are killed in this routine 'gendercide' in any one decade than people were slaughtered in all the genocides of the twentieth century" (14). These numbers are indeed shocking. Their second aim is to call the readers for activism. Kristoff and Wudunn argue that oppression of women may be transformed into opportunities. Therefore, they call others to participate in the process of emancipating women just like abolitionists called for the emancipation of slaves in the nineteenth century. Chapter 14 specifically discusses what others can do to alleviate the suffering of women around the world, starting with four steps one can take "in the next ten minutes" (256).
Kristoff and Wudunn's aims are worthy of praise and their book is a welcome contribution to feminist literature dealing with global gender inequality. Their accounts are best in dealing with journalistic reporting, but their analysis is not well-grounded in feminist scholarship. There are several issues that can be raised about the approach of the book, from binary visions to oversimplification, lack of criticism in discussing gender relations in the West, or addressing structural problems in the global economy that contributes to discrimination against women. Kristoff and Wudunn demonstrate their attempt to make a stark distinction between "us" and "them" in an introductory passage: "In the wealthy countries of the West, discrimination is usually a matter of unequal pay or underfunded sports team or unwanted touching from a boss. In contrast, in much of the world discrimination is lethal" (13). An author familiar with feminist scholarly nuances would certainly avoid such binary terms which are divisive and, needless to mention, inaccurate. For example, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics in the United States, on average three women are murdered by an intimate partner and six hundred women are targeted for rape or sexual assault every day ("Violence Against Women in the United States"). The level of violence might be worse in Pakistan or China than it is in the United States, but the distinction is not as stark as Kristoff and Wudunn present.
Kristoff and Wudunn make many important points. They note, for instance, that ideological and political divisions between the right and the left should not preclude one from participating in the cause for empowering women. Nevertheless, they are vocal about the advantages of free marketeering that they advocate for less developed countries in the world, ignoring some unsavory consequences of global capitalism. They even chastise the state of Kerala in India for implementing "anti-market economic policies" (177). Women should be given greater individual autonomy and be incorporated into the labor force and the markets should be opened, Kristoff and Wudunn argue. These are recommendations worthy of careful consideration. But their uncritical assessment of the market economy ignores the structural inequality made possible by neo-liberal policies forced upon less developed countries by wealthy nations as well as international organizations such as the IMF and the World Bank (Harvey). As Kristoff and Wudunn mention several times, economic backwardness and poverty often lead to oppression of women. But they do not address the global capitalist economy that contributes to gender inequality in much of the world (Einstein).
In describing the plight of women in many parts of the world, Kristoff and Wudunn are convincing, but when it comes to the question of "why" and what should be done, they do not provide analytically sound recommendations. They so strongly believe that bringing women into the labor force will empower women that they claim it is better for women to work in sweatshops than stay in the villages (215). It may be true in parts of China but in other parts of the world sweatshops and factories may be more exploitative than villages. But Kristoff and Wudunn propose the Chinese formula as a universal solution that needs to be exported to Africa and the Muslim world. Again their suggestion is simplistic because even in Southeast Asia encouraging women to move out of villages and work in urban factories does not always lead to positive outcomes for women. For example, in Mary Beth Mill's study of Thai women who leave the village to work in urban sweatshops, women are not better off in the city than in the village. Because of meager wages, harsh working conditions, and the physical and mental stresses of industrial labor, Mill argues, "many felt that as workers they enjoyed less freedom than they did at home" (125).
The point is not to disprove Kristoff and Wudunn's suggestion that empowering women by bringing them into the workforce worked in China. The problem is when they generalize and simplify such complex issues. As feminists lately have argued that the means of empowering women in the West do not necessarily work in non-Western countries, one way of empowering women in one part of the world, i.e. China, may not work in another part of the world. Yet Kristoff and Wudunn criticize many state leaders for not tapping into the "greatest unexploited economic resource -- the half of the population that is female" (167). The implicit suggestion is that women are better off -- and so are national economies -- if women are brought into the labor force even if it means exploitation for them.
While Kristoff and Wudunn marvel at the success of Communist China in empowering women -- even the title of the book echoes Chairman Mao -- they might look for valuable insights in the experience of Bolsheviks who tried to empower women of deeply conservative Central Asia fifty years before Communist China embarked on a path of modernization that included the empowerment of women. In 1920s and '30s, the Bolsheviks viewed Central Asian women as "surrogate proletariat" and believed that bringing them into the workforce would empower them and modernize the society. The Bolshevik policy led to mixed results. Not only was there a strong backlash by conservative circles, with tragic consequences for women, but joining the labor force for women was like replacing the tyranny of the household with the tyranny of the workplace -- sometimes even worse (Massell, Northrop).
The book is full of such generalizations and overly simplified discussions. Consider their suggestion that empowering women will also decrease the threat of terrorism. The argument again is worth exploring as this may be true in many cases. But Kristoff and Wudunn oversimplify it. "The reason there are so many Muslim terrorists," Kristoff and Wudunn paraphrase security experts, "has little to do with the Korean but a great deal to do with the lack of robust female participation in the economy and society of many Islamic countries. . . . Empowering girls, some in the military argued, would disempower terrorists" (18). This passage is in line with the general tendency of Kristoff and Wudunn to present the world in binary terms where evil acts are committed by men and women are mostly victims. It is clear that by "Muslim terrorists," they mean male Muslim terrorists. Kristoff and Wudunn fail to note that socio-economic conditions may produce female terrorists who may carry out suicide bombings or take civilians hostage, as was the case with the Moscow theater hostage-taking in 2002 (Healing).
There is much that can be praised in Half the Sky. The book is an eye-opener when it comes to learning about the ongoing violence against women and girls in various parts of the world. Kristoff and Wudunn make an enormous contribution to the literature on gender relations in the world. The descriptive and journalistic accounts are the strengths of their book. But their weaknesses lie in their failure to meaningfully engage existing feminist scholarship. Feminists largely agree with Kristoff and Wudunn that the problem of gender inequality needs to be addressed much more rigorously than it is being addressed today.…