Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn's Half the Sky.

Reading between the lines.
Sept. 14 2009 7:16 AM

Where Have All the Women Gone?

A manifesto against gender apartheid.

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Or how about the enslavement of women in brothels, which is now far larger than the trans-Atlantic slave trade at its height? Some 3.5 million women are being jailed, drugged, and raped for cash today. This brutalization of women doesn't have to happen any more than the enslavement of Africans did in the 18th century. As the authors write: "The tools to crush modern slavery exist, but the political will is lacking. That must be the starting point of any abolitionist movement." International pressure—set in motion by the acts of ordinary citizens—works.

In a book that comes close to being a masterpiece of modern journalism, it's sad—and a little squalid—that Kristof has allowed a discredited cause from his columns to crawl into its pages. He has long defended sweatshops, where by definition women are forced to work near-impossible hours for a pittance. He does so again here, writing: "Sweatshops have given women a boost. … Women and girls still stream to such factories because they're preferable to hoeing fields all day back in a village. … Instead of denouncing sweatshops, we in the West should be encouraging manufacturing in poor countries."

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But Kristof surely knows that it is a false choice between having poor women hoeing the fields and having them working in dangerous conditions in factories. There is a third—and better—way. Anti-sweatshop campaigners—who he has explicitly chided—want all factories, everywhere, to adhere to certain minimum standards: No use of beatings, a maximum working day, safety precautions. Then they won't be sweatshops; they'll just be factories.

Whenever he is confronted with this argument, Kristof says that any country that imposes basic human conditions on sweatshops loses its trade to a country that won't and women suffer. But this ignores an obvious truth: Anti-sweatshop campaigners want to see these rules imposed everywhere. There should be no escape clauses and no places where multinational corporations can go to cheaply abuse women for a few extra pennies of profit. Given his genuine disgust at the abuse of women elsewhere, it's bewildering that he endorses it in this form—and as a species of feminism, too!

There is another, more subtle flaw with this book. The Kristof journalistic template is plain: He finds individual heroines in countries ignored by the United States who personify both the problem and the fight-back against it. He then tries to marshal U.S. public opinion and, in turn, U.S. governmental power behind it. It's effective—but he uses it only when the victims are marginal to the bigger goals of American power. The U.S. government has no interest in maintaining the sex trade, or fistula, so it is relatively straightforward to enlist its support in eradication efforts.

But when it comes to crimes of commission by the United States, rather than of omission, this formula falters. One of the worst places in the world to be a woman is Saudi Arabia, where you can be imprisoned for trying to drive a car and lashed for being raped. Perhaps the very worst is Afghanistan, where—outside the Potemkin village of Kabul—women are almost invariably imprisoned in their homes and used as property-cattle in private fiefdoms run by warlords.

Yet woman-lashing Saudi Arabia is the closest U.S. ally in the region (along with Israel), and woman-crushing Afghanistan is actually occupied by the United States. The rights of women are being casually sold out in exchange for oil, military expediency, and hard geopolitics. U.S. citizens have the most responsibility for this, because it's your government doing it—but Kristof and WuDunn choose not to focus on these places, skimming over them briskly. The closest they get to condemning a U.S. ally is the fragile regime of Musharraf, who was already widely criticized within elite U.S. circles and has subsequently been junked for a more pliable puppet. To assume the U.S. government could easily become a nuclear-armed Amnesty International if only its citizens would ask it more assertively is dangerously naive. It overlooks the massive structural changes that need to happen at home—like kicking America's oil addiction—before the United States can consistently support women's rights everywhere.

Even with these stains, Half the Sky—named after the Chinese proverb: "Women hold up half the sky"—remains a thrilling manifesto for advancing freedom for hundreds of millions of human beings. Yet many people who should be buying this book and supporting the women it describes are inhibited by the fear that it would be "cultural imperialism." Isn't it their culture to treat women differently? Who are we to judge?

This is historically illiterate. Cultures can change. It was the "culture" of Massachusetts to hang witches once; it was the "culture" of Alabama to enslave black people. A century ago, China was the worst place in the world to be a woman. Your feet would be bound into gnarled, bloody stumps. Often, you weren't even given a name, just called "Daughter No. 4." For all its flaws, China has left these bloody bandages far behind it. "If culture were immutable," the authors say bluntly, "Sheryl would be stumbling along on three inch feet."

This argument collapses even further into The Chasm of Lousy Excuses for Inaction when you speak to the women themselves. It wasn't Shahnaz's culture to have her face burned off or Mukhtar's to be gang raped. No—it was the culture of their oppressors. Slaves do not love their chains; women do not love to be subordinated. There is a conflict within these cultures—and we must now pick a side or sit out the great civil rights battle of our time.

Johann Hari is a Slate contributing writer and a columnist for the Independent in London. He was recently named newspaper journalist of the year by Amnesty International. You can e-mail Johann at j.hari@independent.co.uk or follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/johannhari101.