Where Have All the Women Gone?
A manifesto against gender apartheid.
As soon as I started reading this cry against the global wasting of women's lives, I could smell Shahnaz's face—what was left of it—again. By the time I met her in a hospital in Bangladesh, Shahnaz's face flesh was a mess of charred meat: Her skin, the soft tissue of her cheeks, and the bones beneath had been burned away. Her nose was gone, replaced by two flared holes. Her lips hung down over her chin like melted wax. Her left eyelid couldn't close, so a trail of tears was forever slowly tracking down over the wounds. Shahnaz was 21 years old, and her husband had just thrown acid in her face.
Her "crime"? To insist on continuing her studies—she loved science and poetry—when her husband wanted her to have babies. She smelled of a day-old barbecue left out in the rain.
In much of the world today, it is Shahnaz, not her husband, who would be judged to be in the wrong. For them, a woman is there to be a servile baby machine, and if she refuses, she can be beaten, raped, or burned with impunity. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and his Chinese-American wife, Sheryl WuDunn, have written an impassioned exposé of this subjugation—and a roadmap to equality.
They start with an extraordinary fact that shows how deep this abuse runs. Today, now, more than 100 million women are missing. They have vanished. In normal circumstances, women live longer than men—but China has 107 males for every 100 females in its overall population, India has 108, and Pakistan has 111. Where have these women gone? They have been killed or allowed to die. Medical treatment is often reserved for boys, while violence against women is routine. More girls are killed in this "gendercide" each decade than in all the genocides of the 20th century. This year, another 2 million girls will "disappear."
But this isn't considered a story. While we rightly roared at racial apartheid, we act as though gender apartheid is a natural, immutable fact. With absolutely the right Molotov cocktail of on-the-ground reporting and hard social science, Kristof and WuDunn blow up this taboo. They ask: What would we do if we believed women were equal human beings, with as much right to determine their life story as men? How would we view the world differently?
We would start by supporting the millions of women who are fighting back. This isn't merely a story of victims; it is predominantly a story of heroines. Mukhtar Mai is a 37-year-old woman who was born to a peasant family in southern Punjab, Pakistan. She was never sent to school because there were no schools for girls in her area: Why would girls need to read? In July 2002, her younger brother was kidnapped and gang raped by a higher-status clan. In order to cover up the crime, the gang accused him of having raped one of "their" girls. A tribal council heard the case and found him guilty—and ruled that, as punishment, his sister Mukhtar should be gang raped.
After she was dragged into a barn and raped by four men in turn, Mukhtar was supposed to kill herself to remove the "shame" from her family. As she explains: "They know that a woman humiliated in that way has no other recourse but suicide. They don't even need to use their weapons. Rape kills her."
But Mukhtar did something a woman wasn't supposed to do: She went to the police and demanded justice. Unusually, the police arrested the attackers. Pakistani dictator Pervez Musharraf heard about the case and sent $8,300 in compensation. She used it to build a school for girls, saying it was the only way to start eroding the attitudes that led to her rape. But once she started speaking out—saying rape was a systemic problem in rural Pakistan—Musharraf declared that she was "embarrassing" Pakistan and had the secret services order her to shut up. She refused—so she was placed under house arrest and then kidnapped by Musharraf's goons.
Even then, Mukhtar wouldn't give up. She got word out to her supporters—and they ensured that she was released. Her campaign is working. As Kristof and WuDunn explain, "Rape is no longer a penalty-free sport, and so it seems to have declined considerably in the Punjab." Thanks to her, thousands of girls are in school, and tens of thousands now will not be raped.
It's a humbling story in a book full of humbling stories. An illiterate woman from a middle-of-nowhere village stood up to her country's president and security services, in the name of the most basic human value of all, equality—and she won. It forces you to ask: What have I done, with almost none of the odds stacked against me that Mukhtar had?
Perhaps that sounds depressing. But on the contrary, Kristof and WuDunn's book is empowering for the reader. It shows that, while there is a mountain of misogyny to be climbed, it is being ascended, woman by woman, day by day. The authors are constantly pointing readers toward practical things they can do, from giving to the best charities to volunteering for Mukhtar's schools in Pakistan.
They take the reader on a grand tour of all the issues that are ignored because women are ignored. For example—who has heard of fistula? It is today's leprosy, causing 2 million women to live and die as despised outcasts—yet it is virtually unknown. When a woman has a long, obstructed labor with no doctors to help her deliver, the blood supply to her vagina, bladder, and rectum can be cut off. The tissues die, and a hole is ripped in her flesh. From that hole, shit and piss will leak for the rest of her life in one long incontinent streak. Because she stinks, she is rejected by her husband and her community, and forced to live scavenging on the streets.
In every African town, you see fistula-stricken women, wandering aimlessly, their heads down in shame. They are the saddest people I have ever met. But this problem is cruelly easy to treat. For $300, a fistula can be repaired in 90 percent of cases. Fistula can be beaten, if only we value women enough to do it. There used to be a fistula hospital in Manhattan. Today, it is the Waldorf-Astoria.