(For a few of my own thoughts on the gay marriage issue, please go to Vote Obama 2012.)
I rarely miss a column by Nicholas D. Kristof in the New York Times. He speaks insistently but with an always rational and tempered voice for the downtrodden, the neglected, the subjugated, the hungry, the war-torn and the wounded members of our global society. There are too many of them. And an awful lot of them are women.
I have just finished reading Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, the book Kristof co-authored with his wife, Sheryl WuDunn. It matters to mention that she is of Asian ancestry: her grandmother was born into a world where a girl's feet were still bound to make them beautiful in compliance with a male-dominated culture, no matter the agonizing disfigurement inflicted by the practice on its victims. What would today be almost universally considered a cruel abuse was discontinued only relatively recently in Chinese history, but it remains a significant reminder of the progress in the full humanization of women worldwide of which Kristof and WuDunn write.
Their message is a positive and optimistic one, even though they need to confront us, first, with a great deal of evidence that is truly harrowing--evidence of the mistreatment of women in so many awful ways. The authors recount first-hand stories of socially-tolerated rape and beatings, of enslavement and prostitution, of medical neglect and legal victimization, of "honor killings" at the hands of families for sometimes purely imaginary offenses, and of the preferential treatment of boys. They have the horrific statistics and the solid evidence of social science to back them up, but they anchor their factual account in the profoundly personal, often heart-breaking stories of brave women who have been subjected to these outrages.
Men, for sure, are in good part to blame. As a man, I struggle with the fact that our sex has much to answer for, both historically and in the world today. The male need to enslave and possess, to bully into submission, to sexually abuse and exploit accounts for much of the misery we humans bring upon ourselves. But WuDunn and Kristof are not strident nor accusative. Rather than lay blame, they are always on the search for solutions, for ways to bring about change. They are careful, particularly, not to attribute the blame exclusively to men: they make it clear that in the context of many, often ancient cultures, women contribute willingly to their own abuse in such matters as the distribution of labor and genital cutting, even the abuse of their daughters. They are enslaved as much by history and tradition as by male domination.
Usefully, the authors expose the multiple ways in which the West has aggravated rather then improved matters in many non-Western parts of the world. No matter how well-intentioned, some government and non-government charitable organizations expend human and financial resources in ways that serve their own agendas rather than the needs of people they intend to serve. Without a proper and respectful understanding of the cultures in which they work, Kristof and WuDunn argue, their efforts can be counter-productive, even destructive. The best solutions, as they demonstrate time and again with their examples, come from within the culture rather then from "we know best" external attitudes and condescension. We need to trust women to know what's best for them. A few, a growing number we discover, have the extraordinary courage, intelligence and tenacity to fight for what they know to be right and what they need. Admirable as they are, they prosper often only on the support that wealthier individuals and countries can supply.
Education is the key to the expansion of women's rights throughout the globe. In many cultures in the Middle East, in Africa and Asia, girls take at best second place behind the boys when it comes to school learning. Too many are denied any access to education whatsoever. Girls' schools are even bombed and burnt to the ground--some with their students still trapped inside. And yet, Kristof and WuDunn plausibly argue, to deny women the right to acquire an education and a place in the working world is also to deny the possibility of greater security and economic well-being for all. Men tend to fall in line when they discover that their women can not only improve the family's economic standing, but contribute significantly to the affairs of state. Change, "Half the Sky" demonstrates, is already being felt everywhere. Women's rights are not only desirable, they are inevitable. It's our job to do what we can to hasten them, because the fate of our species will depend upon our action--or its absence.
A final chapter in the book and an appendix offer suggestions as to how we can do that job, what we can do to help in practical ways and how we can contribute financially to the cause. WuDunn and Kristof are knowledgeable about charities and agencies, and offer reliable guidance through the maze. I think that anyone who reads their book will be inspired to sacrifice in some way, small or large, in order to invest in this invaluable and regrettably underused resource of humankind.
It is ironic, perhaps, that Kristof acquired his essentially humanitarian world-view growing up on a farm in a remote corner of Oregon: the husbandry of animals and dependence on the cycle of nature have much to teach us about our interdependence as human beings, and the way we live our lives. To have lived in this way as a child is to have learned a particular sense of responsibility for other beings and a sensitivity to their needs, and these are the qualities I admire in a man I know only through the words he writes. He is, certainly, an inspiration to me, and I hope to those millions who take seriously what he has to say.
Here's more about the Half the Sky movement, pioneered by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.