Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn wrote Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide for an audience of upper middle-class Americans who, feeling somewhat bored or vaguely dissatisfied with their accumulation of material wealth, might begin to look outside of themselves and wonder what to buy next, or ask, what is the meaning of all our things?
I am not a member of that audience.
As educated, poor white trash, I read Half the Sky somewhat selfishly, hoping to find inspiring ways to turn oppression into opportunity for this one woman living in the United States of America at the turn of the twenty-first century, or at the very least, some tips for surviving the Great Recession. Instead I find pretty much the same options for women worldwide that I learned growing up in a fundamentally religious family in that most incongruous of American cities, Las Vegas. Poor women’s choices the world over: prostitution, marriage, or embroidery.
From Half the Sky I learn that the interest rates charged by micro-financiers to fund the embroidery projects of third world women are competitive with those charged to the American poor by mega-banks like Citi, owned for a brief time a few years ago by American taxpayers, a costly legislative decision that will be paid by your children and grandchildren, and possibly your great-grandchildren. The difference is that an investment worth US$25 is not enough to offset the cost of surviving in North America, particularly not in an era where our textiles have been replaced by another system of ones and zeroes, and that technology permits us to live anywhere in the world and still perform the same job functions.
Without diminishing in any way the thoroughly researched, richly interwoven stories of suffering wrought by poverty and misogyny the world over, I am puzzled by a few of the conclusions reached by the white male Pulitzer Prize-winning, New York Times columnist and his Chinese-American wife. While I learned in early childhood the lessons of embracing contradiction, it is my formal education that taught me to at least question paradoxes before arriving at my conclusions.
Side note: that I have already used the term “prostitution” rather than the watered-down and more liberal-leaning “sex worker” means, as the authors explain, that I run the risk of offending feminists more liberal than myself, while much of my writing will likely offend conservatives, and neither camp will hear me say that my language is less a product of my upbringing than a conscious choice grounded in the urgency of more closely examining the meaning behind our language rather than simply changing our words whenever a particular term grows stale or falls out of fashion. Discrimination and bigotry do not necessarily change with a shift in language.
My side note introduces the first assumption inadequately examined by the authors:
“We won’t eliminate prostitution.” (p. 26)
As a designer, I am trained to ask: What if…?
I guess I never grew out of the child asking: But why?
With all of our money, technology, and military might, why can’t we solve elemental, historic, global, social, economic, medical, and juridical problems?
Next I wonder about the authors’ ability to differentiate between enslaved prostitution and the notion of prostitution as free will:
“…about half said they had been coerced into the brothels; women who began working in their twenties were more likely to have made the choice themselves, often to feed their children. Those who start out enslaved often accept their fate eventually and sell sex willingly, because they know nothing else and are too stigmatized to hold other jobs.” (p. 5)
Granted, there is a qualitative difference between the life of a pubescent or adolescent girl chained in a room where her flesh is peddled between brothel owner and john for a handful of rupees, and a mother in her twenties doing whatever she can do to provide for her children, but is that really choosing prostitution? Is the choice ever made by a college-educated woman determining between, hmm, let me see, investment banker, CEO, hedge fund manager, and, oh, I know, prostitute-? A “choice” somewhat similar to the children’s rhyme that lists potential occupations as butcher, baker, candlestick maker, thief, I suppose. Or does that “choice” speak more of the fear of men and upper middle-class women, of the perceived dangers of the prostitute, the vagina dentata in our social imagination that threatens to chew up and spit out the phallus and the phallic marriage?
One might also examine the qualitative differences between a prostitute and a woman who is economically dependent on her husband, and those differences might have more to do with longevity than love, as in one of the last times I was in Las Vegas and one of my sisters marveled while observing a group of teenaged girls clustered on a street corner on the Strip receiving last-minute instructions from their pimp before proceeding about finding the evening’s clientele, “They look just like regular girls.”
And those regular girls look a lot like the laser-lit billboards and signs taller than buildings of women plastered all over the Strip, glittering objects designed for masculine consumption, and probably not unlike the university women who, in the same city, are afraid to cross campus alone at night. Looking to Half the Sky for inspiration reminds me of my father naming us girls “whores” if we wore makeup or shorts or our skirts rode up above the knee, and I am remembering, too, that his sole job-hunting advice was limited to getting out there and “pounding the pavement,” and I am still wondering, all these years later, if he meant for us to conflate the advice with the appellation? I am inclined to agree with the observations made by Saudi doctors interviewed by the authors:
“’Why do foreigners always ask about clothing? Why does it matter so much what we wear?…You think we’re victims because we cover our hair and wear modest clothing. But we think that it’s Western women who are repressed, because they have to show their bodies – even go through surgery to change their bodies – to please men.’” (p. 154)
The authors wisely describe money as an ineffective solution for the global problems of rape, terror, and other forms of oppression, yet money is the only solution that Half the Sky offers. They seem surprised when the corporate branding of menstruation is an ineffective enticement for ensuring the education of African schoolgirls, and surprised again when an Afghan housewife, severely beaten by her husband, describes her disapproval of wife beating by husbands who are illiterate and uneducated, but supports the practice when a wife is guilty of “’not taking care of her husband or is not obedient.’” (p. 69) This anecdote reminds me of the time that my mother responded to the knowledge that one of my brothers-in-law was beating my sister in her pregnant abdomen by murmuring that whatever happens between a man and his wife is their business, not for us to intervene. Twenty years later, when my sister expresses gratitude to my parents for all she put them through, and her daughter begs for permission to pursue her fondest adolescent dream to become, not a butcher, a baker, or a candlestick maker, but a cheerleader, I am not at all surprised.
To test money’s effectiveness toward changing social, religious, and familial values, the authors purchase two prostitutes enslaved in brothels, then express surprise and disappointment when both of them return after being “rescued” to husbands, families, or communities from which they originally fled, were sold, or coerced into the trade. Really? Did you expect that but for the difference of US$200 these women would be free? How free are the choices of girls whose worth is defined on all sides by their families, their husbands, their communities, and their culture?
The New York Times gleefully tells us how free girls are in a small town not far from Houston, Texas, in its shamefully sexist coverage of gang rape not one whit ameliorated by adding a woman reporter to the story in response to the hue and cry from the blogosphere. To the contrary, the addition of a woman reporter simply communicates editorial ignorance of the structure of our patriarchal culture, where most women uphold the patriarchy just as most men do, that myth of the “battle of the sexes” simply a myth that the mass media enjoys propagating. That ignorance might have been forgiven in the 1970s, but is shocking to me coming well after the turn of the twenty-first century from a paper with the stature and the influence of the New York Times.
Evidence of their commitment to their research, the authors of Half the Sky describe many visits to brothels throughout Southeast Asia, with WuDunn patiently waiting outside while Kristof poses as a john to obtain interviews with enslaved girls and women. Never once, throughout the entire text of the book, do/es t/he/y question the presumption of this male privilege, so invisible is male privilege to our global culture.
The authors praise such organizations as CARE, the World Health Organization, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for their efforts to provide condoms to third world brothels in an attempt to reduce the global spread of HIV, yet, two pages later, t/he/y discover that the organization purporting to unionize prostitutes might well be a front for funneling first world funds to third world brothel owners, where condom use is negotiated between the john and the pimp, and the prostitute has no voice in the transaction. In Kolkata, for a few extra rupees, a customer may purchase the privilege of the opportunity of contracting or further spreading HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. A system, at any rate, ripe for still more abuses.
With its recent influx of cash from Warren Buffet, does that make the Gates Foundation, in addition to its very generous cultural contributions to our libraries and our museums, the world’s richest pimp?
And this is the same organization tremendously invested in redesigning the American public school system starting from the basis of blaming teachers for the damage wreaked by corporate-influenced bipartisan legislation, and whose dominant suggestion for solving the multivalent problems in education is to introduce still more technology to our classrooms?
Do we really want a college dropout, who has amassed a vast fortune from technology, dictating the critical thinking abilities of future generations? Do we have a choice?
Money alone will never remediate the damage wrought by, if I may again borrow a phrase from bell hooks, but not without first prefacing the citation with a warning to the reader, you must hear this uttered with her gunfire rapidity, our imperialist-white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy. As long as we continue to confuse democracy with capitalism, we will continue to confuse democracy and fascism. Working within that capitalist system, the authors of Half the Sky cite educator Sakena Yacoobi, of the Afghan Institute of Learning, “’If we took the foreign aid that goes to guns and weapons and just took one quarter of that and put it into education, that would completely transform this country.’” (p. 165)
As in Afghanistan, so in America.
What is one quarter of a gagillion dollars?
What are we teaching?
What are we learning?
The authors also cite an Amnesty International aid worker, “’During the Taliban era, if a woman went to market and showed an inch of flesh, she would have been flogged; now, she’s raped.’” (p. 150)
Hmm, yet another thing Afghanistan seems to have in common with America.
Granted, strutting through the market in a tube top, crotch-flashing miniskirt, and “hooker boots” reveals considerably more flesh than an inch; women’s oppression in the United States is qualitatively different than in Afghanistan, but is the imperialist-white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchal culture enforced by our North American Taliban regime structurally so different? Or, as philosopher and sociologist Slavoj Zizek urges, stop looking for difference, instead, look for not-difference.
If the Gates Foundation cannot repair the problem of prostitution right here in Seattle, how can we possibly presume to tell other nations how to solve the same problem within their borders? By the same imperialist logic with which we force democracy down the world’s throat at the point of a gun, with torture, rape, or endless war? I return to the question of ending prostitution: Why not? Why can’t we? What if…?
With all that money, technology, and military might, what’s missing?
The authors of Half the Sky categorically reject the American women’s movement as a model for ending global slavery because, as they say, “if the international effort is dubbed a ‘women’s issue’, then it will have already failed” (p. 223-224), which is another way of saying we want the whole world to change, while holding tightly to our own white male property-owning cultural privileges. For feminist scholars, unlike the propaganda spread by much of our mass media, the Second Wave was never “just” a “women’s issue,” rather, a human issue, a metaphysical problem, an examination of what it means to exist in an imperialist-white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchal culture.
The authors recommend as a model, instead, the British movement to end slavery two centuries ago, an immense economic sacrifice, as “a heroic example of a nation placing its values above its interests.” (p. 235) Given how much of the world still subsists in abject poverty or outright slavery, both within and without our borders, it would seem that neither movement has been entirely successful.
When do we begin placing humanity above economic gain?
When do we decide to value humanity above technology?
What is your legacy?
What is our common identity?
The title for Half the Sky pays tribute to the wisdom of an ancient culture that believes that women and men share the burden of holding up the whole of the sky. Could someone explain to me, please, how a culture that produces such poetic wisdom could also admire the beauty of lotus blossoms in the broken and mutilated feet of its women? Is that something like lipstick feminists insisting on the privilege of shoving their feet into four-inch heels as a freedom of their self-expression? Must we follow ten paces behind those men, because our grandmothers did?
Is it impossible to escape our genealogy, no matter how hard we try?
However much I may struggle through this lifetime, I remain eternally grateful that I shall never experience the privilege of holding in my hands a receipt for the life of another human being.
What does that privilege do to you?
How does that privilege change you?
At what point do you become blind to that privilege?
Or, referring to another children’s folktale, ouch, I think I just got bonked on the head. Maybe it wasn’t the sky that is falling. Maybe it was Newton’s apple. Sure enough, what goes up must come down.