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Half the Sky – Religion, Oppression, and Education

There are times when you read a book about faraway places and almost incomprehensible problems, and you are amazed to find that they raise questions that are very close to home. Granted, some of the characters in chapters nine and ten were actually close to home for me (Sakena Yaccobi, director of the Afghan Institute of Learning mentioned in chapter 9, spent several years studying public health at Loma Linda University), but for the most part I do not live in a world where the decision to chose my own husband will cause my brothers to argue whether I should be killed or just sold to a brothel (p. 150).

But in Chapter 9, Kristof and WuDunn squarely face a question that seems politically incorrect to even ask. Is Islam Mysogynistic? is the title of the chapter, and in the first few pages they make note of the strong correlation between abuse against women and predominately Muslim countries. They point to the explicit passages in the Koran which advocate gender discrimination, and remind us that in Islam, the Koran is the literal Word of God, which makes it harder for its adherents to just shrug off passages that no longer fit the modern (or post-modern) mind. They quote opinion polls that seem to suggest many Muslims just don’t believe in equality. They note that in the rankings of countries according to the status and treatment of women, 8 of the bottom 10 were Muslim, and the highest ranking Muslim country (Kazakhstan) only made number 45.

And yet when it comes time for them to answer their own question, Kristof and WuDunn state simply that “Islam itself is not misogynistic” (p. 157). Perhaps it is because historically, Islam was far more progressive towards women’s issues when first introduced than the surrounding nations (p. 151). Or perhaps it is because of the potential redemptive interpretation of the Koran to be found by the several Islamic feminists the authors mention (p. 152). Or maybe because the Prophet’s own youngest wife, Aisha, was a strong, bold, assertive woman who was the Islamic world’s first feminist (p. 153). As a woman in a faith tradition with its own gender issues, I would note that the One who is the source of one’s faith, and the cultural and religious practices that have been codified by the people in power, can often be worlds apart.

And there are stories that show promising change. The author notes that women are judges, politicians, small business owners and non-profit workers doing amazing things. And there is always the hope that those in power will finally realize that as long as smart bold woman who could change the course of a family, a community, a town, a city, are ending up in jail or in a coffin, these nations are literally killing off their opportunity for development.

In Chapter 10, Kristof and WuDunn turn to education as the key to solving not only the problems of inequality, but also poverty and economic development. They share with us the story of Dai Manju, whose family lived in a one-room shack that they shared with a pig. Despite the fact that she was an excellent student and loved to learn, Dai Manju was told by her family to drop out in the 6th grade. And if she had, her life would have followed a tragically predictable pattern. But due to an amazing series of events, including a $10,000 mistake by the Morgan Guaranty Trust Company, Dai Manju and many other girls at her school where given scholarships. She graduated junior high, high school, and an accounting program, married a skilled worker, had her first child at age 30, and wired money back home to help siblings, her family, and others. When the authors returned to visit the area, they met up with Dai Manju’s family. The shack was still there, but now the sole resident was the pig, as the rest of the family was “rattling around in a six-bedroom concrete home.” The village even got a road. That, the authors say, is the power of education.

And study after study (although some of them more methodical than others), show that educating girls is one of the most effective ways to fight poverty (p. 169). The authors note that increasing education does not necessarily mean building more schools, but could be the less glamorous but far more cost-effective step of deworming children, or managing menstruation, or salt iodization, or even bribery (paying parents to keep their kids in school).

Kristof and WuDunn acknowledge that the world of foreign aid is complicated, difficult to get right, and often squandered or even counter-productive. But they make the compelling argument that we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater – that some kinds of aid work does work (usually those that are community based, and involving health or education), and has made an enormous difference. Between 1960 and 2006, an extra 10 million children survive every year now, thanks to campaigns for the basics like vaccinations, sanitation, and rehydration. And the key, for them, is to invest in girls, because the ripple effect of educating girls impacts birth rates, cultural violence and authoritarianism, economic development, and much much more.


1. When culture, religion, and ethnicity merge to create oppressive environments for women, it can become difficult to know where to start or how to be effective as an outsider looking in. Perhaps the most effective way we can help those whose culture and set of experiences are so different from our own, as the authors say, “isn’t holding the microphone at the front of the rally but writing the checks and carrying the bags in the back.” How can we support those who have the most to lose? While working as a community organizer, I was always taught that one of the cardinal values of organizing is “people should have a say in the decisions that shape their lives.” How can we ensure that this happens more?

2. Education is often thought to be the panacea for poverty, oppression, inequality, etc. But as a child of western colonialism in Africa, I have seen the unintended consequences of well-meaning efforts to educate, to provide certain standards of living and sanitation, etc. How can we know when our actions will benefit and not harm those we are trying to help?


This was originally posted on the Women’s Resource Center website as part of the book club discussion of Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. Join the discussion at the Women’s Resource Center blog.

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