Half the Sky by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

6260997Nonfiction — print. Knopf, 2008. 294 pgs. Library copy.

Subtitled “Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide”, Kristof and WuDunn introduce readers to the women of Asia and Africa who have been raised in oppressive environments, subjected to physical and sexual abuse, and managed not only to survive but turn their experiences into opportunities to educate and help others. The purpose of this book, however, is not just to inform readers about the ways women are advocating changes in their circumstances but to engage readers with the problem and encourage them to take action now.

And that is why I ultimately struggled to love this book. The stories told in her are moving and inspiring, but for every story of a Middle Eastern girl working to educate the girls in her village, there is an Ethiopian woman who suffered devastating injuries in childbirth and can only be “saved” by a white person. The book is a glaring example of what one of my professors would term the “white savior complex”, perpetrating the idea that (white) Westerns must band together and save our poor brethren in the Third World.

For a book that is supposed to be about women, the book is sexist and ethnocentric and paternalistic, and certain chapters are so permeated by these beliefs that I had to take a break from the book in places. Perhaps the most disturbing example of this occurs on page 47 where Kristof and WuDunn begin their chapter by saying not the blame the victims only to write one sentence later:

“But the reality is that as long as women and girls allow themselves to be prostituted and beaten, the abuse will continue.” (pg. 47)

No, no, no! What a disturbing way to write about the survivors of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse, particularly given how the authors discuss how these women are often times drugged with methamphetamine and heroin to make them compliant. By using the word “allow”, the authors participate in what is known as “victim blaming”, and I cannot endorse such a book.

Compared to this, my second complaint may seem mundane, but I did not enjoy the way in which the authors referred to themselves. The book is written from WuDunn’s point of view; Kristof is always referred to as Nick in the text. Yet, I cannot remember a time where WuDunn referred to herself as “I”. Everything was “Nick said” or “we did”, and I found that to be a very odd way to write a book, especially considering Kristof’s name comes first. (I imagine because he is the more well-known of the two.)

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