Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn


Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide is the brainchild of the Pulitzer-winning husband-and-wife journalistic team, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. She has roots as a business executive and he's a longtime op-ed columnist for the New York Times; together, they continue to provoke change and raise awareness for global issues. When it was published in 2009, Half the Sky incited a movement to take action against the crises women of poverty are facing in the developing world. The movement of the book went on to spark a two-part miniseries on PBS, a social media game that raises funds for change, and, most invaluably, an enduring discussion of the problems as well as the potential solutions. The crises at the fore of this women’s rights initiative are horrifying in both context and scope, but WuDunn and Kristof present them with tact and respectfulness, balancing the harrowing truths with other, more optimistic realities about how these injustices are being fought against. As a reader, I felt I had an undeniable opportunity – and, perhaps, a moral obligation – to understand the experiences women across the country are facing; and even though I read many paragraphs through the blur of tears, I know Half the Sky was one of the most vitally important books I’ll ever read. The issues Kristof and WuDunn explore are extreme violations of the rights and integrity of women, including but not limited to the atrocities of sex-trafficking, maternal mortality, female genital cutting, gender-based illiteracy, and gender-based violence and discrimination. While this all sounds – and, indeed is – very bleak, the smiling faces and mischievous stares of the women on the book’s cover represent what makes Half the Sky somewhat lighter: the stories of triumph and empowerment. Not every story has a happy ending; in fact, some truly broke my heart and left me needing to stop and absorb the sadness of what I had just read before continuing. Nevertheless, while the very real tragedies represented here are unforgettable, what I ultimately took away from the book was a feeling of hope. The stories of women overcoming their hardships and achieving seemingly impossible feats were profound examples of extraordinary courage. I call the material of the book “stories” merely because they are presented in an anecdotal format; not once did I – or will any reader, I expect – forget that what I was reading was completely, sometimes unbelievably factual.

While much of the book focuses on highlighting the works and plights of singular women, the authors do also devote some chapters to the statistical elements of the injustices. At one point, WuDunn and Kristof write that studies have shown people to be more giving and in general more responsive to stories about an individual rather than coverage of statistics and descriptions of entire peoples suffering under the same issues. I found that understandable because, while the statistics shocked me into attention, there is, I think, a certain human element related to hearing the story of one woman’s struggle. As individuals, we can relate to another individual more than we can relate to a body of people or a series of numbers. Still, though statistics are inevitably a bit less able to form an emotional connection, the effort of the authors on that aspect proves effective. (Additionally, the individual experience is timeless while statistics and other information may change; for example, at one point the authors describe the lack of women's rights representation in the UN, which seems a bit inaccurate now given the rise of UN Women.)

It’s incredibly difficult to be critical of a book with the sort of agenda Half the Sky has, though admittedly there were areas where I felt a little disconnect; there has also been some talk about certain struggles the book might present for readers (i.e. controversial views of factory work and questionable handling of the sex trade). Imperfection is inevitable; the question is, are the imperfections relevant? For myself, occasionally the narrative tone left me feeling a bit disjointed, a bit preached-to, and I sometimes sensed the authors’ restless impatience to spur society into action - but can I blame the authors for being passionate about their cause? Of course not; I doubt that anyone in the position to present this material and invoke a call-to-action on the topic would be any different. And predominantly, the importance of the issues in Half the Sky – the importance of the book’s message and its galvanization of change – transcends any subjective issues a reader might have with it. What it comes down to, I think, is that Half the Sky is a remarkable book and its message is an absolutely vital one to be taken into our global culture.

Half the Sky was my September pick for the TBR Pile Reading Challenge; it's taken me a few years to finally get to this book, but it was certainly an extraordinary read. It was also complex, as it absolutely should be, so I'm hoping I was able to capture all of the complexities in my review. Someone asked me after finishing it if I thought it should be required reading, and I said, "Definitely". While with any book there will always be elements that we won't agree on - writing is an art, and the arts are always subjective - awareness of the human rights issues that Half the Sky focuses on should absolutely be required. I also can't recommend the accompanying documentary enough; I watched that when it premiered on PBS two years ago and it was truly unforgettable - as is the book.

Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunnPublisher: Knopf/Vintage Release date: September 8, 2009

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Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide