Book Review - Half the Sky

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The title of Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide comes from a proclamation from China's former Chairman Mao Zedong: "Women hold up half the sky." Mao made that statement following a brutal revolution in 1949 that led to tens of millions of deaths by famine or repression, but one of its most positive legacies was the emancipation of women. After taking power, Mao brought women into the workforce and the Central Committee of the Communist Party, and he abolished child marriage, prostitution, and concubinage.

This book, written by a couple of journalists who happen to also be a couple, Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, explores the modern state of affairs for women worldwide. I wasn't sure what to expect when I started reading the book, but was positively surprised to find that it is very well-researched, tells a compelling set of personal stories, and is a fairly easy read.

The book covers women's issues by topic, hopping from one country to another around the world in order to paint a picture of what things are like for women today. The women-centric topics covered include twenty-first century slavery, prostitution, rape, female genital mutilation, "honor" killings, maternal mortality, family planning, the role of religion (specifically focused on Islam), education, micro lending, and grassroots versus "treetops" efforts.

Although the authors do an excellent job reporting on women's issues and inspired me to want to make a difference (the book has a concrete list of ideas in a "What You Can Do: Four Steps You Can Take in the Next Ten Minutes" chapter at the end), I took issue with one of its recurring positions. The authors repeatedly advocate for male circumcision, in an effort to reduce the spread of AIDS (even though the scientific evidence showing that male circumcision reduces the chance of spreading AIDS is outdated and the advice is plainly misguided). I find it incredibly hypocritical for a book to admonish other cultures for practicing female genital mutilation and within its pages seriously propose male circumcision.

Regardless of this issue, the majority of the book is really moving and I would certainly advise it to other people interested in women's issues, or even someone who isn't interested—the personal stories may help someone stubborn see things from a disempowered woman's perspective, which could be just what the world needs.

4/5 stars. 296 pages.