The Shame of “Honor”. The hymen, Kristof and WuDunn explain, is an object of worship and symbol of honor in many cultures. For that reason, a torn hymen is a motive to murder girls. Virginity has been valued across history, the authors explain, and virgins have been bought and sold. Today, this persists in parts of the Middle East. The authors write that, “the paradox of honor killings,” in which a woman is murdered for suspicion of impurity, “is that societies with the most rigid moral codes end up sanctioning behavior that is supremely immoral: murder.”
Here, the authors place modern violence against women in a global history in which virginity is prized as a commodity, and conversely a lack of virginity is a reason to murder women. The prize of virginity is represented in the intact hymen, a tissue membrane over the vagina opening (the absence of which in fact indicates nothing about a woman’s sexual history, as it can break from any kind of physical activity). Half the Sky shows consistently that hating women and wanting women’s bodies can coexist.
The authors tell the story of Du’a Aswad, a seventeen-year-old Kurdish girl living in Iraq, who spent a night with a Sunni Arab boy. Though honor killings are outlawed in Iraq, the authors report that security forces watched a thousand men participate in Du’a’s killing, ripping off her skirt, kicking her “as if she were a soccer ball,” and dropping stones and concrete bricks onto her. Afterward, some men covered her body in the street. This is one of an estimated 5,000-6,000 honor killings a year, the authors write. That statistic doesn’t cover honor rapes, in which rape is used to systematically disgrace and terrorize women. In Darfur, the authors report, rape was a strategic weapon for Sudanese-sponsored militias, and women who sought medical help afterward were punished, to prevent negative publicity. Reports of mass rapes are staggering, such as the estimated 90% of women in parts of Liberia during the civil war. One doctor tells the authors that he discourages survivors from going to the police, because the police will rape them.
The vivid and nearly unbearable telling of Du’a Aswad’s story serves to imprint a lasting image of honor killings on the reader’s mind. Multiplied by 6,000, the murder of Du’a is even more tragic. Importantly, rape is not just violence for the sake of individual male satisfaction, but a systemized weapon in many situations. The doctor’s advice that girls not go to the police shows the omnipresent threat of rape women endure.
Eastern Congo, the authors write, is the “world capital of rape,” where militias attack civilians, raping women with bayonets or shooting guns into their vaginas. When one three-year-old in Congo was raped, then shot, her father killed himself. The authors report a former UN general as saying, “It has probably become more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier in an armed conflict.”
The authors’ description of weaponized rape is unflinchingly graphic, which makes the reader confront it all the more. It also highlights the way tragedy spreads—a father committed suicide after the unspeakable was done to his toddler. The former UN general’s statement challenges the idea that soldiers are the most vulnerable people in war and that civilian abuses are exceptions.
Kristof and WuDunn introduce Dina, a teenager the authors met in her Congolese village, Kindu. One day before sunset, Dina told the authors, while walking home from her bean field, five Hutu militiamen – despite having no conflict with her village – raped her, then punctured her insides with a stick. Afterward, she developed a fistula in her organs, with feces and urine draining down her legs. The authors describe meeting Laurent Nkundu, a warlord and welcoming host who denied any use of rape by his soldiers. But, they write, “everyone knows that rape is routine.” A male teenage soldier even told the authors that rape is the soldiers’ right.
The use of sticks and bayonets to enact an even more vicious and horrible sort of rape (if rape can even be made more vicious and horrible) sheds light on the weaponization of rape. By simulating rape with objects, soldiers use the woman’s vagina literally as place to enact war—that’s how symbolically weighted the vagina is, and how vulnerable women are in war.
While most casualties in these conflicts are male, violence toward women—rape, disfigurement, and torture—are used to “terrorize the rest of the population.” When Dina told Kristof and WuDunn her story, a line of women lined up, wanting to tell their story of rape as well. After her ordeal, Dina sought help in the city of Goma, from HEAL Africa, a hospital where she was placed with dozens of other women with fistulas. Physical therapy and surgery helped her heal before her return to Kindu, back to the threat of more rape.
The authors don’t discount the violence men face in war—most deaths, after all, are male. But violence against women is an efficient way to terrorize a whole community. Once again, in Dina’s story the authors show how an aid group’s intervention as necessary to stabilizing a woman’s health and life.
“Study Abroad”—in the Congo. Kristof and WuDunn describe HEAL Africa as a “sanctuary of dignity” from the misogyny in Congo, where Harper McConnell, a young American women, among others, gives important help to patients. Using Harper as an example, the authors recommend that those seeking to help gender inequity issues first acquaint themselves with other cultures. Studying abroad or taking gap years in developing countries, rather than visiting Europe, deepens the worldviews of young people. While violence is a real threat for women abroad, American and European women tend to be treated hospitably, and even have more opportunities for volunteer work than men do, since men may not be allowed to teach girls, the authors write. Most of the groups mentioned in Half the Sky accept committed volunteers.
In Half the Sky, Harper’s story works as a representation of what good can come when young Americans commit – deeply commit – to aid work in developing countries. Her story segues into what the authors believe is a greater cultural need for Americans to broaden their global outlook, especially in education, implying that an intimate encounter with poverty is necessary to sensitively and sincerely contribute to the cause of gender equality.
After Harper graduated from the University of Minnesota, unsure of what to do with her life, she arranged with her church to work as an onsite volunteer at HEAL Africa. HEAL Africa is a major and successful hospital, where all but three employees are Congolese and acquiring resources as basic as water, electricity, and bandages is a feat. As a single young American, living in Goma can be challenging, but Harper reports benefits: in bed with malaria once, she thought she saw Ben Affleck hovering above her. It wasn’t a hallucination – Affleck had come to visit the hospital. At twenty-three, Harper also started a valuable skills-training program women can attend while awaiting surgery. Skills like weaving and soap-making give women the chance for economic independence. Despite missing amenities, Harper reports loving her life in Goma, from “rejoicing with a family over their improved harvest” to “dancing with [her] coworkers over a grant awarded for a program.”
The authors’ emphasis on Harper’s success in Goma—her joy, close relationships, and positive influence at such a young age—functions as a persuasive argument for readers to pursue a track like Harper’s. Here, the authors keep their audience in mind, intending for Harper’s sunny but realistic story – not to mention her encounter with a superstar actor – to inspire readers to broaden their own idea of what interactions with developing countries might look like, beyond writing checks or buying woman-made coin purses.