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Further thoughts on our discussion of Half the Sky

S. Yaeger's picture

Since I was pretty clearly shaken up and a little incoherent today during our discussion of Half The Sky, I thought it would be beneficial to post here with my calmer, less certain thoughts, and see if we can't figure out a very complex set of problems together.

To begin with, I think that one thing that's important to discuss is the problem of problematic language vs valuable action.  This to say that, while I found much of the language in the text problematic, and while I felt rendered helpless by it, neither of those things make the actions of those inspired by the book less valuable.  Similarly, while I'd love to see, and try to work toward, a less binarist language of gender, using binary terms while attempting to raise money that will help to educate those who would otherwise be denied access does not negate the absolutely real and tangible value of such a drive.  

It's easy for me to sit in a position of relative priviledge at BMC and call out the problems in a text for which I am most likely not the audience, but the reality is that actions like those advocated for in Half The Sky are absolutely needed, and those actions absolutely need the financial backing of wealthy and well connected people to carry them forward. The questions I am left with, however are numerous.  At what point is problematic language a problem that takes presidence?  At what point does abuse closer to home take priority over global abuses?  Where does actual progress and solution end and white knighting begin?


colleenaryanne's picture

What would they have to say?

I couldn't help but wonder during our discussion on Thursday what any one of the women affected by sex trafficking and sex slavery have to say about the issues brought up. I would like to invite one (or several) of these women to the table and listen to what they have to say about "white crusaders" and the problematic language of this text as well as the movement itself.  I'm not sure whether the idea of rich white people swooping in and saving them would be offensive or just what they what.  I feel like it's difficult for us to be able to judge what we can and cannot do to people who are not being involved in the decision.  Obviously for various reasons we can't always run into India and interview all these women and ask them their opinions on being "rescued;" however, I feel like it's a little ridiculous for us to sit around in a classroom and discuss the fate of women who have no say in it.  This is another thing that is problematic with the text - all these rich white people thinking it's their duty and their right to go in and change someone's life without their involvement - but I also felt like that was a problem with our discussion.  Who are we to 'save' these women? But at the same time, who are we to sit around and let them suffer when there is something we could do about it? I am torn between anger at everything that is happening, frustration at the sensationalist writing, and fear of exerting my privelage over these people.  I wish someone who came from that situation could speak to what is happening here, be it positive feedback or offense at what the "white crusaders" are doing.  Whether we're talking about "saving" these women or talking about how it's not our place to "save" them, we are still sitting around discussing the fate of people who are not at the table.

meowwalex's picture

I also find this a very

I also find this a very important thought to explore. It reminded me a lot of what was going on in Iraq and the tensions between the Iraqi's and the American soldiers who were there. From the point of view of the soldier, they could not imagine how an Iraqi would look at them with distaste because they were playing the role of "savior" for the country. Instead of placing ourselves on that pedestal as people who can solve the issue, we have to remember to ask ourselves to understand that issue on a much deeper level -- which would be talking to the people at the forefront of what is happening. I also feel that much of Kristoff's writing style makes it seem that all the women affected by this issue agree with the way outsiders are trying to handle the situation. But I wonder how much conversation actually took place, and if his ideas on how to "rescue" these women were sculpted by his conversations with those most affected, or if he just finds himself in a position where he doesn't have to step back and ask their permission.

dear.abby's picture

africa vs next door

The fact is that it is easier to think of third world problems as occurring only within the third world and never within miles of a place like Bryn Mawr. Regardless of how true or false that thought is. But as far as I am concerned, true poverty is an affront to human dignity. So when there are hundreds of people living in the United States without running water, electricity, or a home beyond a tent, that is an affront to human dignity.  This is an affront to dignity because of the fact that within blocks of the spaces where this poverty occurs there exists the opposite. The fact that there are still tribes within Africa, and in many other parts of the world, where people live comfortably without running water or electricity is not an affront to human dignity. Now, what I just mentioned is in no way the kind of poverty that was mentioned in Half the Sky; the stories there definitely consituted "an affront to human dignity" in the same way that the existence of homelessness within the US does.

Yet I never hear George Clooney or Angelina Jolie speaking out about the homelessness rampant in Los Angeles. Though to be fair, Jolie does seem to do a lot of advocacy for New Orleans related issues.

The point is, third world problems are brought up hundreds of times more frequently than issues of American bound poverty. This probably has to do with the fact that it is harder to hear about/concieve of problems as close to home (closer issues make one feel more personally responsible than they might feel for the problem of Southeast Asian brothels). Also, there is a huge sector of the American populace who view poverty in America as the responsibility and problem of the poor, which the poor choose to participate in and perpetuate.

epeck's picture

Which social constructs can we break down?

It struck me during our discussion of Half the Sky that there are some social constructs (namely gender) which we are happy to break down and propose discarding, yet there are some that we speak about as being more real and we abide to them as a class.  Some of the ones that I noticed were race, culture and priviledge.  Perhaps priviledge is the least parallel to gender because it is something that might be slightly harder to change, although now that I'm thinking about it...there are many aspects of "being priviledged" or not being priviledged that are similar to gender...

some similarities of these other constructs to gender:

-born into THE CONDITION (economic priviledge, race, culture, gender...I'm sure there are more that I'm not thinking of)

-stereotypes of these conditions are perpetuated by society

-it is difficult to change one's condition, but possible.  Changing one's condition may lead to judgement (mild to severe)

-there is the idea that someone in another condition cannot understand others in different conditions

-certain conditions hold the upper hand and subjugate the "lesser" conditions, although not all members of all groups play out this subjugation

-the existance of different conditions is used to divide people

-all conditions have historical relationships to one another


So...with all these things being so come we can mess with gender, but not with other social constructs?  Why would it be so bizarre and probably innapropriate for someone to attempt to change their race/culture?  Why is there an idea that someone from a certain race or level of priviledge will never understand someone at a different level of priviledge and from a different race?  Why is it that only certain categories of people can help eachother and others will be thought of as overstepping boundaries?  If all of these things are social constructs, why do they divide us and stop us from helping one another?  To me, the central issue in Half the Sky is with the idea of a Western force interfering in the lives of non-western people.  Yes, this can be harmful and should be done with caution, but if culture and definitely divisive geography are socially constructed, why can't this just be one person trying their best to help another?  Clearly NGOs and charities need to constantly be reflecting and measuring the help they are giving to make sure they are not causing harm.  Kristoff talks a lot about how people on the ground within cultures need to be supported and let to do a lot of the work in changing their own cultural norms, so I don't really see this book as a narrative of a white savior complex.  I just don't see how we can bend the social construct of gender in this class, but remain so rigid with all of these other constructs.

buffalo's picture

Half the Sky

Pejordan I like that you brought up what Ellen said in class, because I definitely agree with her.  Yes, there are problematic issues with certain language used in the text, but the overall message and information that Half The Sky gives, is so important and needs to be heard. Before reading Half the Sky I didn’t know the extent to which women are denied human rights around the world (including the US), and even though the book left me feeling a bit helpless and guilty, I’m still glad I read it. In class people were saying that Half the Sky only addresses a certain audience with suggestions of taking an unpaid internship abroad, so this leaves people who don’t have that opportunity feeling helpless- but would it be better for them to just be ignorant and not know what’s going on? I don’t understand this thinking….even for people who can go abroad, it still feels so overwhelming. Reading this book left me wanting to try and change this drastic inequality, but I still do feel powerless, no the less I would much rather know what is going on. I acknowledge what pejordan said about the white crusaders issue, but I don’t think it’s wrong to want to put effort into helping people who are suffering, for example working in an HIV clinic abroad. I’m still struggling with people taking issue with going abroad, especially with to work with medicine, which has such a high demand for help. I realize that sending doctors into places with limited medical care will not fix the much bigger economic and gender issues, but it will still take away some suffering.


In class and in pejordan’s post people talked about finding the language like "women as economic catalysts" problematic, but I don’t see that as a problem. I thought Kristoff was pointing out that by not allowing women the same opportunities as men, countries are having weaker economies. I didn’t think Kristoff was saying that is the reason to stop oppressing women, he’s saying that if that weren’t the case many countries economies could become stronger.


Pejordan I agree with what you were saying about organizations like Heifer International, how it is important to put efforts into projects that can have a longer lasting impact. After reading Half the Sky I was left thinking that education is the key to helping females gain equality. This goes back to the discussion that if gender weren’t seen as such a binary these problems wouldn’t exist….but they do. So yes I think it’s very important for change to start with how gender is thought of, but I don’t see how a book like this outlining gender inequalities wouldn’t hurt that process. 

mbeale's picture

The Little Boy In Harlem

An annoyance with the text that I neglected to bring up in class is the pure audacity of international humanitarianism. When there are still things being swept under the rug and out of our consciousness like the Trayvon Martin  case and this case ( of a 68 year old veteran being killed in his home largely on the basis of race, I feel it is blatantly cruel to an extremely  marginalized portion of the population within our own country who is in need of justice, much often the same sort of justice aid groups like Half The Sky go peddling and pandering support for all around the world. James Baldwin, a civil rights activist mostly active in the 60s, expressed a similar concern in critique of sprouting aid initiatives like the Peace Corps, "We can't forget about the little boy in Harlem." Instead of solely being conflicted on whether or not to poke one's head into another culture's and country's problems, perhaps it is time we take time to assess the mirroring issues on our own turf.

S. Yaeger's picture

mbeale:  I definitely think

mbeale:  I definitely think that my in-class outburst was related to my own feelings about rape and abuse in this country, particularly the idea that those things only occur "on the wrong side of the tracks."  It's an intensely personal issue for me, and I think that it is dangerous to ignore it as it occurs here.  I agree that movements that send aid abroad get way more notice and press, and I wonder if that is because it's a lot easier to think about a young woman in Thailand being beaten and raped than it is to think about it happening to the girl, or woman, next door.  Similarly, it's easier to notice the innocent victims of a foriegn war, than it is to reconcile the idea that our own citizens get killed by people in power here, or that American children suffer from hunger and exploitation.  Whatever the cause, I'm not sure how I feel about foriegn aid like Half The Sky  and The Peace Corps.  I can see its value and neccesity, and I really dislike the idea of putting down anyone's effort to help another human being, regardless of geographical location.  On the other hand, it's frustrating to know that many people in this country will happily turn a blind eye to inequities and suffering in their own backyards.  I have no idea what the solution is here, and I suspect that there isn't just one answer.  I just wish that we could get past the idea that abuses only occur in particular places.

pejordan's picture

Are We Allowed to Help?

S. Yaeger, I've been struggling with many of the same issues that you bring up here. I agree with much of what people said in class about taking issue with the white crusaders who swoop in and save everyone, because that says that the people who are being saved don't have the power to save themselves. I do think that children in African countries or sex workers in Vietnam or China or India are suffering and dying for reasons that are preventable, and we can do things to help; however, we need to give them agency in solving their own problems as well. Projects like Heifer International, for example, give families access to a means to earn their living and get better nutrition while still allowing them to take responsibility for it. Access to education is incredibly important as well, but those who are being educated need to be able to do what they want with that education. I don't like the phrase "women as economic catalysts" that Kristof brings up because it feels like these women are just puppets who are being used to carry out the visions of influential people in politics and economics. It also makes a clear distinction between women and men, as well as make broad categorizations about "all" women and "all" men, which brings up the binary gender language that many of us took issue with.

Being at Bryn Mawr, we are taught to think about the problems in our world and try to analyze them the best we can, but sometimes I don't think we work hard enough to find ways to alleviate the problems. I often felt this way in my Environmental Studies class last semester and am feeling similarly after discussing Half the Sky. There is never one solution to these complex problems, and it would be naive to think that there is, but I believe that each of us can find ways to help. Does the fact that all the women who had directed fundraising projects or other activities in the "She's the First" video we watched were white negate the benefits of their efforts to help women across the world? I don't think so. As Ellen said in class, maybe sometimes we just think too much.

S. Yaeger's picture

pejordan:  I definitely don't

pejordan:  I definitely don't think it's a problem that all of the people in the She's The First Video were white and I especially don't think that negates the value of what they've done.  What I found problematic in the text was the idea that rape, abuse, poverty, and coercion were located in very particular places, such as in other countries and on "the wrong side of the tracks."  I don't think that it is wrong to want to help women in precarious positions globally, as long as those movements are ones in which individual survivors are given agency (as you said above). I do, however, think that it can be dangerous to think that these problems are solely located in those particular places.  I absolutely agree with you that it is possible to help in one's own way and that any effort to do so is valid and I truly did not mean to invalidate anyone's efforts to help.

epeck's picture

This distinction between

This distinction between helping internationally and ignoring issues at home seems important to me.  I agree that it is incredibly important to not give the idea that our own issues are fixed and now we can focus elsewhere.  Minimizing our own problems could be very harmful, especially to those who have experienced any kind of hardship that may not be focused on nationally.  I would never want the US to give the impression that we only care about these kind of things when it's not happening to our own citizens or to make any of these issues seem like a purely "3rd world problem" - this could make the experience of something like a rape or physical violence in the US seem more isolating or shameful if it's portrayed as something that "doesn't happen here."