four-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
43-Nov-Dec-2009
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Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide

A-Half the SkyNicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, a married couple, won the Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of the Tiananmen Square protests for the New York Times.

The Topic: According to one of the many shocking statistics in Half the Sky, the number of women who die unnecessarily in developing countries in any given decade is greater than all the deaths of all the 20th century’s genocides combined. That statistic might seem like an impossible obstacle to overcome, but Half the Sky has plenty of good news as well. Not only do Kristof and WuDunn tell the stories of many women in the developing world who have overcome oppression and transformed their communities, but they suggest that empowering women is also one of the most efficient ways to alleviate poverty. One of their key examples is China (the title comes from the Chinese proverb "women hold up half the sky"), where, they argue, a better quality of life for women has been an important factor in the nation’s rapid economic growth.
Knopf. 294 pages. $27.95. ISBN: 9780307267146

Cleveland Plain Dealer 5 of 5 Stars
"That Half the Sky is so personal heightens its power and persuasiveness. … As Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring once catalyzed us to save our birds and better steward our earth, Half the Sky stands to become a classic, spurring us to spare impoverished women these terrors, and elevate them to turn around the future of their nations." Susan Ager

Washington Post 5 of 5 Stars
"[The book] asks us to open our eyes to this enormous humanitarian issue. It does so with exquisitely crafted prose and sensationally interesting material. … I really do think this is one of the most important books I have ever reviewed." Carolyn See

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"Half the Sky tackles atrocities and indignities from sex trafficking to maternal mortality, from obstetric fistulas to acid attacks, and absorbing the fusillade of horrors can feel like an assault of its own. But the poignant portraits of survivors humanize the issues, divulging facts that moral outrage might otherwise eclipse." Irshad Manji

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"You’d expect a world tour of sex slavery, wife beating and death-by-childbirth to be a nonstop downer. Instead, Half the Sky introduces us to some of the most courageous and inspiring girls and women on the planet." Paula Bock

Slate.com 4 of 5 Stars
"With absolutely the right Molotov cocktail of on-the-ground reporting and hard social science, Kristof and WuDunn blow up this taboo [of gender apartheid as an immutable fact]. They ask: What would we do if we believed women were equal human beings, with as much right to determine their life story as men? How would we view the world differently?" Johann Hari

Critical Summary

Critics, universally inspired by Half the Sky, used their reviews as an opportunity to take up its message. They praised not only Kristof and WuDunn’s clear moral stance and explanation of the issues but also the way they combined individual women’s stories and practical advice to give the book an optimistic tone. Reviewers pointed out some flaws, particularly the authors’ focus on individual action (such as providing a list of hospitals and schools to direct charity to) while neglecting to criticize the policies of Western governments. As more than one reviewer pointed out, Saudi Arabia, a country with one of the worst records of oppressing women, is a U.S. ally. Nevertheless, critics encouraged readers to pick up Half the Sky, which, according to the Seattle Times, "will ignite a grass-roots revolution like the one that eliminated slavery."