The Axis of Equality. Kristof and WuDunn introduce billionaire Zhang Yin, a bubbly woman from China who started her career earning $6 in a factory. After working her way to a job at a paper company, Zhang Yin learned the paper business and eventually followed her idea of recycling American scrap paper to sell in China, driving around California with her husband and arranging to funnel paper from dumps. By 2006, she was a multi-billionaire. The authors write, “there is some thing larger going on here...six of the ten wealthiest women in the world are now Chinese.” They argue that Zhang Yin and her peers reflect that China has leveled the labor playing field for women, as have a number of once oppressive countries.
The inclusion of Zhang Yin isn’t so much an example of what women can achieve when they put their mind to it—although she can be interpreted as that, too—but of the gains possible when a society supports employment opportunities for women. That is, the authors’ point isn’t that more women can become billionaires, but that women have success on par with male peers when given the chance.
The authors say they hear doubts that overcoming oppression is possible, along the lines of, “What can our good intentions achieve against thousands of years of tradition?” But China is a great answer. A hundred years ago, they write, “foot-binding, child marriage, concubinage, and female infanticide” seemed inextricable from Chinese culture. Though it might have been cultural imperialism for Western countries to criticize these practices, the authors maintain that it was morally right. Slavery, genital cutting, and honor killings today should likewise never be preserved on account of respecting cultural differences. Cultures can and do change, they write. In early 20th century China, conservative pushback was vehement, just like it is in the modern Middle East, but the culture nonetheless changed. Later, Communism cost millions of lives, they write, “but its single most positive legacy was the emancipation of women.” In fact, it was Mao who claimed, “Women hold up half the sky,” from which the book gets its title.
The authors anticipate what some readers might thin:, that some parts of culture are so deeply etched as to be indelible. But China makes a compelling argument to the contrary—and a compelling argument for optimism about the future of women’s rights. Moreover, Communism’s legacy of expediting women’s emancipation in China is an important lesson in the winding, often confusing paths of history. Chinese communism is depicted in the United States as having reduced freedom in that country – and in many ways that’s true. But it also helped to reduce the oppression of women in certain ways.
The authors emphasize that China still has problems, including sexual harassment, sex-selective abortion, and a resurgence of concubines. But, of all countries, China has made the most progress in women’s rights, and is one of the best places (at least in cities) to be born female. They use WuDunn’s grandmother as an example—at five, her feet were bound so they would be attractive to men, but which also made her hobble around “like a slim penguin on short stilts” even after she moved to Toronto and had seven children. Over time, the practice of foot-binding disappeared, but women were still considered inferior. The authors explain that in recent decades, however, female economic contributions have reformed cultural attitudes. Plus, women have excelled in formerly male domains, like science, math, even chess. Importantly, China serves as a useful model because it’s easy to trace its economic growth to the emancipation of women, especially peasants outside cities. This success would be challenging for more conservative countries like Pakistan to emulate, but Indian executives have set their sights on employing more women, the authors write.
Invoking WuDunn’s grandmother makes more personal the disturbing effects of women’s oppression, which impacted her in the form of her bound feet for her entire life. And yet she also became the matriarch of a family in modern Toronto, suggesting women’s strength even in the face of such cultural oppression. At the same time, the practice of foot-binding in particular invites the reader to question modern interpretations of beauty and the ways they might constrict women. And the way that foot-binding has disappeared offers the hope and possibility that with effort other such oppressions can be made to wither away.
Kristof and WuDunn make a claim that “sounds shocking to many Americans: Sweatshops have given women a boost.” Injustices inside factories, like sexual harassment and dangerous conditions, are real, but factories remain preferable to grueling farm work back home, they argue. Plus, women are preferred to men as factory workers. The West should actually encourage more foreign manufacturing, especially in Africa and the Middle East where little is exported today. They describe the African Growth and Opportunity Act, an under-recognized U.S. program to reduce tariffs on African products, which they argue should merge with the European corollary to boost African industry.
The authors expect readers’ shock at the claim that sweatshops are good for women. The argument isn’t quite central to Half the Sky, so the authors don’t devote very much text to it, but they do walk the reader through some evidence as to why factory jobs help women gain autonomy. Moreover, they even advocate for increased manufacturing in countries with weak industry. This reflects the book’s repeated claim that economic empowerment unlocks solutions to women’s oppression.
The authors look to Rwanda as another model of gender progress. Rwanda remains an “impoverished, landlocked, patriarchal society that still lives in the shadow of the 1994 genocide in which 800,000 people were slaughtered in one hundred days.” Yet remarkably, women now play new and indispensible roles in Rwanda, to the whole country’s benefit. After the genocide, the authors write, women and girls made up 70 percent of the population and had to fill the workforce, but moreover the male role in the genocide cast women as less brutal and more responsible. They had the active support of the new president, who appointed women to cabinet positions. The authors report that, in 2008, women made up 55 percent of the Rwandan legislature, compared with the paltry 17 percent in the U.S. House of Representatives. Rwanda is also “the least corrupt, fastest-growing, and best-governed countries in Africa,” with a burgeoning economy. The authors explain that both Rwanda and China are evidence that governments can support women in ways that also supports economies.
An extreme example, and one fraught with tragedy, Rwanda’s narrative reflects what’s possible when governments actively support women. In Rwanda’s case, the support seems motivated not by political pressure for equal representation of women in politics, but out of a practical recognition that women can have a powerful influence in politics. Like China, Rwanda shows the long trajectory of history, and how much can change within a few decades.
Kristof and WuDunn describe Murvelene Clarke as a woman living in Brooklyn who wanted to donate some of her $52,000 salary to charity, in the imitation of Christian tithing. She went to the website Charity Navigator and found Women for Women International, where she was paired with a Rwandan woman Claudine Mukakarisa, the authors write. At thirteen, Claudine and her sister were kidnapped by Hutu militiamen, held in a rape house where men stood in line for their turn, and were raped for days. “Maggots were coming out of our bodies,” Claudine says, and they had to crawl in the hut, unable to walk. Claudine was released, but her sister was killed, the authors report. Confused about her swollen belly, young Claudine thought she couldn’t be pregnant, because the believed only girls who are kissed become pregnant. She gave birth alone in a parking lot, at first abandoning the baby but retrieving it. For years she begged on the street, barely surviving and being chased away for her rank smell, until an uncle took her in in exchange for sex. When she became pregnant again, he kicked her out. She managed to earn $1 a day and send her children to school.
Murvelene functions in Half the Sky as a model, committed aid donor who makes a difference from afar. Murvelene doesn’t need to travel to Rwanda or volunteer on-the-ground to affect the life of a Rwandan family. Further, the juxtaposition of Murvelene and Claudine is a striking reflection of the modern world and the reader’s role in it: the intersection of Murvelene’s life in Brooklyn, with which most Western readers can better identify, and Claudine’s life in war-torn Rwanda invite the reader to consider how he or she might intersect with an unknown person. The story is especially poignant given the repeated obstacles Claudine met after having two children by rape, and that the most reliable help she found was from a stranger in another country.
Murvelene’s $27 monthly donation has radically changed Claudine’s life, Kristof and WuDunn report. Women for Women trains women in saving and accruing wealth, so Claudine buys charcoal for cooking, to sell to other families at a small markup. She also attends the organization’s daily morning classes, alternately on vocational skills and on “health, literacy, or human rights.” Murvelene and Claudine exchange letters and photographs, and even after Murvelene lost her job, she continues to donate 10 percent of any income she gets, even gifts of money. Murvelene says, “for me, it was a way to get out of myself. A lot of times, you forget how fortunate you are here, never really needing anything.” Rwanda’a economy benefits greatly from the economic contributions of women like Claudine, the authors write.
Murvelene’s commitment to aid extended even after she lost her own source of income, underscoring the fact that donation amounts can adapt to the situation of the donor (and how even small amounts of aid can impact a person’s life in the developing world). The authors highlight the good it has brought to Murvelene’s life, too, since part of Half the Sky’s goal is to persuade readers to join in aid contributions. And while the authors are explicit that Rwanda’s economy benefits from women like Claudine, they implicitly posit that it benefits also from donors like Murvelene.
Tears Over Time Magazine. Kristof and WuDunn first describe Zainab Salbi, an Iraqi woman living in the U.S., as Hollywood’s conception of a “free-spirited Middle Eastern princess.” When Zainab was growing up in Baghdad, she spent weekends at Saddam Hussein’s house (her father was his personal pilot) playing with his children and calling him “uncle.” Her upbringing was therefore filled with shiny gifts, like a new car every year from Saddam, but also fraught with fear, the authors write. Saddam and his sons were known for raping girls, then blackmailing them, and worse. Zainab describes Saddam as “a poison gas,” that they breathed slowly. Saddam doted especially on Zainab, once insisting she wear his robe to the swimming pool, though she thought it would be too transparent and kept refusing.
The authors use the story of Zainab’s early life to later trace how she came to care so deeply about women in dangerous situations. The implication is not that advocates need an intimate history with tyrants or war to be able to empathize with victims. Rather, the story shows one woman’s journey to a passion for justice, a journey that could happen in many readers’ lives (with a far less dramatic inciting event).
In university, Zainab’s mother suddenly pushed her to marry an Iraqi man in the U.S., the authors write, who after three months of marriage violently raped her. She immediately left him, but lived in fear of U.S. authorities discovering her ties to Saddam. Zainab fell in love with and married a Palestinian man and saved up for a honeymoon in Spain. One day soon after their wedding, Zainab idly read an article in Time magazine about strategic rape camps in Bosnia. Zainab burst into tears, the authors write, and exclaimed that she had to do something to help. No aid groups seemed to be working for Bosnian rape victims, though, so Zainab approached a Unitarian church for help, and she and her husband used their basement to serve as headquarters for a project they called Women for Women in Bosnia. They donated their honeymoon money to the project.
Women for Women International, which grew out of Zainab’s work for Bosnia, is the same group that connected Murvelene in Brooklyn and Claudine in Rwanda. The emotional response of Zainab (a rape survivor) to rape camps in Bosnia eventually led to Murvelene’s support of Claudine, herself a survivor of rape. The authors don’t explicitly remark on this web of shared suffering and common causes, but leave it for the reader to consider.
For three years, the couple struggled to build the project, barely subsisting on what was leftover to pay bills, when a $67,000 check came in the mail from a charitable phone company. The donation enabled the group Women to Women International to evolve and work with war survivors worldwide, catching the attention of Oprah Winfrey. One day, a war survivor in Congo told Zainab—the only person she had ever told—about her own rape and the rape of her three children by soldiers, who also shot her son in the feet when he refused to rape his own mother. Zainab began to weep, and was moved to tell her own history of her rapist ex-husband and her closeness with Saddam. Later, she learned that her mother forced Zainab into her first abusive marriage because she feared that Saddam would seize her as a mistress, a danger that could have cost Zainab everything. After telling Zainab’s story, the authors conclude, “Women for Women International is effective because it touches people at the grassroots level.”
It’s noteworthy that the Congolese mother who endured her own rape and the rape of her daughters inspired Zainab to tell her own story. In many narratives in Half the Sky, benefits of aid are not unidirectional. That is, the giver often reports rewards, emotional and otherwise, from the act of giving, and also humility. The chapter’s conclusion is also a key lesson gained from Zainab’s story: that grassroots, bottom-up work usually changes the most lives.