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Half the Sky—The Cultural Element

In the first two chapters of Half the Sky, Kristof and Wudunn introduced a world that is vastly different than the one I inhabit: I have a college degree and am studying for a master’s degree, while the women I met in these pages, are fortunate if they have a few years of education. I worry about finding a job after graduation and repaying my student loans, but I never worry that I will be trafficked to a foreign city under the guise of getting work, as they do. I know that if a sexual crime was committed against me or any one of my friends, we have access to medical treatment and legal recourse; the women of Half the Sky are taught to “smile even while being raped twenty times a day” (47). What makes my life, my world, so different from theirs? Geography aside, the answer Kristof and Wudunn suggest, is culture.

In this week’s reading (chapter 3 and 4), the authors move from the horrific industry of sexual trafficking and prostitution to reveal the culture that allows sexual crimes and violence to flourish. One aspect of such a culture is the stigma attached to rape and other acts of sexual violence. Perpetrators know that rape is a more effective weapon than any knife or gun. As one young woman explains,“They know that a woman humiliated in that way has no other recourse but suicide. Rape kills her” (70). Certainly, not all women do commit suicide after such vicious crimes, but for those who live, they find themselves blamed and stigmatized.

If rape has such serious ramifications, then perpetrators also know their threats of sexual violence are an even more effective weapon. Fearing for their daughters and female relatives, many families pull girls out of school and keep them at home and out of sight. This in turn, however, only breeds the potential for more sexual crime, as tormenting an uneducated woman ensures less of a risk of her reporting the offense or seeking legal prosecution (50).

Half the Sky would be an extremely bleak book if what I have written above were the only reality. The fact is, as Kristof and Wudunn’s thesis argues, “women aren’t the problem, but the solution” (xviii). This week’s reading was also filled with incredible stories of women who did go to college (Usha Narayane), who did seek legal recourse (Woinshet Zebene), and who are transforming their communities and countries one woman and one girl at a time (Sunitha Krishnan, Mukhtar Mai). These women are what the authors refer to as “social entrepreneurs,” and as such they and their grass root organizations have the greatest potential to effect change. But what can we in the West do to also work for change? In the past, we have tended to focus on overturning unjust legislation, but changing laws is not the same as revolutionizing culture. Perhaps we would do well to aid and support the work of the Sunitha’s, Mukhtar’s, and more women just like them, wherever change is needed–whether in Pakistan, Sierra Leone, or Chicago. Half the Sky’s purpose then is to invite us view women around the world and ourselves(!) as capable of affecting change in any culture and who do indeed hold up half the sky.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  • What stories were you most stirred by? What stories did you most identify with? Least identify with?
  • What do you make of this statement:“Women themselves absorb and transmit misogynistic values just as much as men do?” (69) Do you agree? Disagree? Why?
  • What would it look like to not merely to “give someone a fish” or “teach someone to fish” but to “revolutionize the fishing industry” when it comes to human trafficking, sexual slavery, and other cultural issues affecting women? (54)
  • What can you do to affect change today? What are the practical steps can you take right now?  (For ideas, see chapter 14 on “What You Can Do” and “4 Steps You Can Take in the Next 10 Minutes”)

Alyssa M. Foll is a graduate student at Wheaton College Graduate School in Wheaton, Illinois. This was crossposted from the Adventist Women’s blog book discussion series.

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