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carolyn.j's picture

Half the Sky

Kristof, Nicholas D. and Sheryl WuDunn.  Half the Sky.  New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009.  Print.

Kristof and WuDunn's book seeks to explore the nature of the oppression of women in a variety of global contexts.  This is done primarily by using personal stories - gathered through interviews - as vehicles for displaying the reality of gendered abuse and inequalities.  For the amount I read the book - which, as a disclaimer, I did not finish - this was the bulk of what was presented.  There were some number of suggestions for what could be done to resolve these situations, but what I read was mostly concerned with presenting the bare reality of what was happening.

I went into this book expecting to dislike it.  Just on the bare face of it, it is a book about female oppression in a number of different cultural contexts being  written by a white American man.  And while his wife also contributed to the book and has a different personal context, it remains that my exposure to the book and the impression I got from reading it was that he is credited far more for its creation.  As such, from the very beginning there should be a number of concerns regarding Kristof's ability to and legitimacy in conveying this particular message. Yet as I went through the chapters, I found far fewer sources of ire and frustration than I had expected.  Kristof took care to frequently emphasize the agency and humanity of all the women he worked with, as well as make clear that they were - and should be - the dominant makers of change and reform in their lives and societies. 

At the same time, my problems with the dynamics of the author versus his subject remained.  And to that end, the whole work remains problematic in my view, if not as much so as I initially expected.  First off, there is only so much Kristof can propose be done to resolve the crisis of global female oppression as an outside voice.  For all that publicization of these stories is important for increased global understanding of what the lives of women are like, Kristof's call to aid necessarily straddles the line between genuine sympathy and white savior problem-solving.  Even when writing enthusiastically about the positive work being done by an American school in Cambodia - wherein a school from Seattle raised funds to build a school in Cambodia, and actively maintains a relationship with it through a yearly trip that the American students take to the Cambodian school - it remains that the connections Kristof sites and the attempts to generate a genuine relationship between the school are just that - attempts. 

For all the good will and conversation in the world, the situations Kristof presents will always bear the reality of a Western actor entering a situation and endeavoring to change it "for the better."  But also convincing in this debate is the reminder of humanitarian necessity: even acknowledging cultural difference and sensitivity, how does one remain respectful and non-obtrusive while also reconciling an ethical need to contribute positive change to a situation that seems morally unacceptable? 

In this respect, reading Teju Cole's article in The Atlantic, "The White-Savior Industrial Complex," was extremely helpful in articulating my critique of Kristof's work.  Cole acknowledges that humanitarian debate, commenting the "there is an internal ethical urge that demands that each of us serve justice as much as he or she can," but also that it is ultimately more crucial to recognize where we lack the legitimacy to act without asserting our own privilige and outsider status (intentionally or otherwise).  Unlike Kirstof's compromise, in which Western actors are encouraged to be educated and engaged but still act as donors and saviors (my words, not his), Cole proposes the final solution that the best way for outside actors to become involved in situations of global oppression is to channel their energies into changing their own country's actions and foreign policy.  While such a direction for one's action may feel less effective to immediately remedying the situation, it's work that has to be done, and is carreid out in a way that does not perpetuate some of the same problems of global privilege that Kristof's would.

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