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.

Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.

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.

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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.

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."

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.