Sometimes books about serious issues can be so depressing and overwhelming they’re hard to get through. Sometimes they’re so steeped in religious or political opinions that the real issues get lost. Sometimes they make broad assumptions or use fuzzy logic that leave you with more questions than answers.
Half the Sky is not one of those books.
Written by a married couple- the first married couple to win a Putlizer Prize- Half the Sky takes a look at gender inequality around the world. The authors consider gender inequality the current major humanitarian issue- on par with the Holocaust and slavery from the years past. At first I was skeptical. When we think of gender equality in the United States, we think about women not getting paid as much as men or whether girls can join the wrestling team. But reading through this book I learned that many women around the world aren’t concerned with equal pay or playing time- they’re concerned with truly being thought of as less human than man. They’re being forced to drop out of school. They’re getting their clitoris’ cut because their culture believes that decreases promiscuity. They’re starving while their brothers and fathers are well-fed. They’re dying in childbirth because they don’t have any trained birth attendants nearby. And, much like former humanitarian crises, the world is largely sitting back and watching it happen, chalking it up to stupidity or culture or unfortunate but unavoidable.
So why is Half the Sky great? Three reasons.
- It is objective- After reading the book, I couldn’t tell you what religious or political affiliation the authors have, if any. It would be impossible to write a book about global women’s rights without mentioning the impact that policy changes, budget cuts, or religious traditions have on those rights. But the authors do a great job of reporting the facts without spin. They also do a great job of identifying loopholes or flaws in logic or studies. Many times (many times!) I would read a passage and think “yeah, but…” only to find that in the next paragraph the authors addressed my concern.
- It is encouraging- I drive my poor husband crazy. I like to read these types of books and am always reading him sections about awful terrible things, like sons being forced to rape their mothers or desperate young teenage girls moving to the city to get a dishwashing job, only to find out that “dishwashing” is code for “prostitution”. It is really depressing. But Half the Sky is not just depressing. They look at several of the issues women face today. They explore the facts. And then they highlight efforts that have been successful. The authors really favor grassroots efforts coordinated by local folks. For each depressing story, there is an encouraging example that demonstrates things do not have to be this way. And the end of the book gives a lot of tips on things you can do from home, without being rich or traveling to poor areas. I cried several times throughout the book, but I didn’t feel helpless at the end. I felt encouraged.
- It has true stories- The authors have met lots of people in their extensive travels. More than just reporting facts, it gives these people a name and a voice and a picture. These stories touch your heart in a way that straight facts just can’t. Hearing that there are 3 million girls who are enslaved in sexual slavery is one thing. But reading the story of Meena, a poor Indian woman who was kidnapped by a brothel owner at the age of 12, touches you in a different way. Meena fought her first customer until the brothel owners beat her with belts, sticks, and iron rods. Still she fought. Then they drugged her into submission. She was forced to service upwards of 10 clients a day, seven days a week. When she became pregnant, the brothel owners took her baby away-both to stop her from breastfeeding because clients dislike lactating women and to use the baby as blackmail to prevent her from leaving. One day she did escape and went to the local police- but the brothel owners pay bribes to the police, so the police brought her back. Stop here and think. It is so easy for me to think of people in these third world countries as dumb or fault them for the things they have to go through. But what would you do if you were Meena? Kidnapped as a tween, literally forced to sleep with countless men, constantly drugged, and even the police can’t help? This is really happening today. One day a local witnessed Meena getting beaten and stepped in. He eventually bought her freedom. After many years and under the threat of death, she worked with an aide group to rescue her daughter. The book has pictures of both Meena and her daughter today. Meena is just one of those 3 million girls and hearing her story is powerful.
These things are real. They’re happening today, right this very second. It’s hard to read about, no doubt. But not reading about them doesn’t mean they’re not happening. It means they’re happening and we’re too busy enjoying our own comforts to take notice- just like the people of yesteryear who let slavery or the Holocaust happen. It’s up to us to educate ourselves and decide how we are going to stand up against this. This will be one of the very few books I read again and again and again. I kind of feel that it should be required reading for high school students. Read it!
Oh, and a bonus reason this book is great? It’s not just a book! In late 2012, PBS premeired a 4 hour documentary starring celebrities like Meg Ryan, Gabrielle Union, Olivia Wilde, Eva Mendes, Diane Lane, and America Ferrera. I’ve only watched the first half so far, but it is great. You meet some of the people behind the stories in the book and learn even more. It is available at many libraries, on iTunes, Amazon, and Netflix streaming. So none of these whiny “I hate reading” excuses! 🙂
Seriously, if you read one book or watch one movie this year, make it this one. Your religious or political affiliation won’t be offended, but your sense of humanity will. And sometimes it’s good to be offended.