Women – rights-bearers, economic assets, or stranded starfish? Uma Narayan

This is a review by UMA NARAYAN of the book Half the sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas D. Kristof and Shirley WuDunn (2010). This review was first published in Perspectives on Politics, Vol. 8, No. 1, March 2010.

Why are we republishing a three year old review? The book has since then become a “movement” with celebrity advocates and a Facebook game that was launched this year. While being widely celebrated across the media in the US, it is also being sharply attacked for its “your women are oppressed, but ours are awesome” rhetoric. 


Asks Sayantani Dasgupta in her blog post from which the image above is taken:

For example, would Kristof, a middle-aged male reporter, so blithely ask a 14-year-old U.S. rape survivor to describe her experiences in front of cameras, her family, and other onlookers? Would he sit smilingly in a European woman’s house asking her to describe the state of her genitals to him? Yet, somehow, the fact that the rape survivor is from Sierra Leone and that the woman being asked about her genital cutting is from Somaliland, seems to make this behavior acceptable in Kristof’s book. And more importantly, the goal of such exhibition is unclear. What is the viewer supposed to receive–other than titillation and a sense of “oh, we’re so lucky, those women’s lives are so bad”?

Anne Elizabeth Moore and Melissa Gira Grant have this to say:

When Kristof is not proposing dubious schemes for advancing women’s rights—like arresting sex workers in order to “rescue” them from prostitution, or enthusiastically supporting the creation of “sweatshops” to accommodate sex workers and other women in the global south—he is marshalling support for such “solutions,” enlisting folks from George Clooney to President Obama, and from evangelical youth missionaries to the United Nations. Everyone seems to love that he’s created simple solutions (Video games! Donating money! Building schools!) but few note that such “solutions” fail to address the deeply embedded, long-standing, structural problems that cause poverty and gender inequity in the first place.

In her review of the book below, UMA NARAYAN makes a larger critique of Kristof and WuDunn’s understanding of  “empowerment” of women as a means towards “economic development” of society as a whole. That this development is of a kind that will benefit corporations world-wide is a minor coincidence, of course.

Over half the top of the book’s front dust-jacket is blue sky, but the women are actually at the bottom third of the front cover where fifteen squares each shows a picture of a woman’s face.  None is a whole face; each picture shows only the top half of a face, all but one black or brown-skinned, with dark eyes.  The narrative mimics the cover in that snap-shot stories leave us with a sense of half-seen faces, as we careen from one poor country to another.  While the book attempts to highlight stories of women who have “turned oppression into opportunity,” its own narrative reveals how precarious these opportunities often are.  An attentive reader might conclude these women are being required to hold up far more than their share of sky, and might concur with Chicken Licken that the sky is indeed falling on their heads.

I will focus on one central tension prevalent both in this book and in development discourse more generally – a tension captured by two sentences on the inside dust-jacket.  The first refers to “our era’s most pervasive human rights violation: the oppression of women and girls in the developing world.”  The second says “Throughout much of the world, the greatest unexploited economic resource is the female half of the population.” The book unabashedly asserts that women’s greater exploitation as economic resources is central to their escaping their human rights violations.

On p. xix we read “Economists who scrutinized East Asia’s success noted a common pattern.  These countries took young women who previously had contributed negligibly to gross national product (GNP) and injected them into the formal economy…The basic formula was to…educate girls as well as boys, give the girls the freedom to move to the cities and take factory jobs, and then benefit from a demographic dividend as they delayed marriage and reduced childbearing.  The women meanwhile financed the education of younger relatives, and saved enough of their pay to boost the national savings rate.  This pattern has been called “the girl effect.”  In a nod to female chromosomes, it could also be called “the double X solution.”

Studies such as Mary Beth Mill’s Thai Women in the Global Labor Force (Rutgers University Press, 1999) provide less-rosy descriptions of the situations of these girls who now have “the freedom to move to the cities and take factory jobs.”  These young women finance more than the education of siblings.  They enable their rural families to purchase inputs required for cash-cropping, provide cash for medical emergencies, family access to piped water, and access to consumer commodities like television.  That they manage to save enough of their wages to meet these demands as well as to boost the national savings rate is due less to the size of their incomes than to the fact that they live together in cramped urban quarters, and save their money to fulfill the weight of family obligations that do not weigh as heavily on their male siblings.  They delay marriage and reduce child-bearing because neither their working conditions nor their living conditions in the cities permits space for marriage and children.  Kristof and WuDunn fail to note that these women are employed for only a few years each, replaced by a host of other young women trekking to the cities.  Most women in Mill’s study have no long-term option but to return to their villages and to count on marriage and their agrarian family economy to sustain them for the remainder of their lives.   If such “opportunities” were those that awaited their own daughters, affluent Western readers might wonder what the “double X solution” was a solution for.

The book is awash in quotes that affirm Third World women as economic resources.  On p. xx we read “”Investment in girls education may well be the highest-return investment available in the developing world” Lawrence Summers wrote when he was chief economist of the World Bank.”  And further, “Gender inequality hurts economic growth” Goldman Sachs concluded in a 2008 research report that emphasized how much developing countries could improve their economic performance by educating girls.”  The authors sound excited that many in Important Quarters are now taking an interest in “women’s issues,” especially in women’s role as assets for economic development.

Feminists have shown that Women have a long history of being strategically-evoked in a variety of discourses that link women’s emancipation to the well-being of their Colony, their Nation, their Culture, their Religion and the like.  Calls for women’s emancipation have historically served to justify the vaunted benefits of colonialism, the aspirations to modernity of nation states and the safeguarding of patriarchal religious or cultural traditions.  Economic development appears to be the latest incarnation of the Greater Good that is to be served by the emancipation of women.

The fashionableness of development rhetoric that justifies educating or providing employment to women on the grounds that that it benefits their families, their communities and their nation suggests that showing the benefits to women alone is insufficient and needs buttressing by all these additional goods that will be secured by their emancipation.  This problematic rhetoric is rendered all the odder by the book’s comparisons of women’s oppression to Slavery and the Holocaust.  Would readers not find it odd if calls to end slavery insisted abolition was good for development or if condemnations of the Holocaust insisted on genocide being bad for the economic prosperity of Germany?

The book suggests that support for women’s importance as economic resources from Lawrence Summers, the World Bank and Goldman Sachs is inspirational.  I suspect I am not the only feminist who finds concern for poor women from the folks on this roster disturbing.  Lawrence Summers sparked an uproar when, as President of Harvard, he stated that innate differences between men and women might be one reason why fewer women succeed in science and math careers.  The World Bank is an institution centrally responsible for imposing Structural Adjustment Policies on many poor countries, forcing them to cut funds used for education, public health, water and sanitation, and safety-net programs in order to repay their national debt.  Numerous feminist critiques have shown that the impact of these cuts most brutally affects poor women in these impoverished countries.  Goldman Sachs is the company Matt Taibi describes in “Inside the Great American Bubble Machine,” (Rolling Stones July 2009) as “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”  Taibi argues persuasively that Goldman Sachs has engineered and profited off every economic recession and bubble since the Great Depression.

Women are apparently more than economic assets; they are political assets as well.  The authors do not flinch at interest in women’s issues emanating from what they call an “unlikely constituency: the military and counterterrorism agencies.” (p. xxi)  They explain, “Some security experts noted that the countries that nurture terrorists are disproportionally those where women are marginalized.  The reason there are so many Muslim terrorists, they argued, has …a great deal to do with the lack of robust female participation in the economy…  As the Pentagon …found that dropping bombs often didn’t do much to help, it became increasingly interested in grassroots projects such as girls’ education.  Empowering girls, some in the military argued, would disempower terrorists.  When the Joint Chiefs of Staff hold discussions of girls’ education in Pakistan and Afghanistan, as they did in 2008, you know that gender is a serious topic that fits squarely on the international affairs agenda. “

I cannot resist the rudeness of asking how many Americans would find their hearts warmed by the thought that the education of their daughters was important because the military heads of a foreign power thought it would strengthen their military and foreign- policy objectives.  If the education of poor women and girls is valued because it is a counterterrorism device that might work better than the dropping of bombs, and the empowerment of women is important because it might disempower terrorists, then the protection of the basic rights of poor women in poor countries is clearly in the grips of an insane utilitarianism with a giddying roster of Greater Goods which women’s empowerment will allegedly bring about.  The position accorded poor women in these discourses is very different indeed from those describing them as human subjects whose basic social entitlements and human rights are being compromised as a foreseeable and foreseen consequence of global economic and political arrangements.

The book offers little sustained analysis of what it would mean to recognize poor women in impoverished countries as rights-bearers, though it pervasively represents them as Victims.  They appear to be most victimized by Local Patriarchs, who subject them to rape, to pregnancies that result in maternal mortality and to sexual trafficking and who insist on spending sparse household cash on alcohol, tobacco and sugar.  While I have no objections to underscoring the brutalities inflicted by local patriarchy, I do have serious objections to what is left out of the causal picture.  One is given very little sense of the vast global economic and political forces that impoverish these women’s lives and cause them to attempt to survive in the middle of armed conflicts and economic chaos. The huge disparities of wealth between rich and poor nations and between the global affluent and the global poor appear to simply exist, without cause or explanation.

The authors’ stress on the charitable activities of affluent well-intentioned Westerners as a central mode of securing the empowerment of poor Third World women is, arguably, at odds with their status as rights-bearers.  On p. 45, the authors make the point that “even when a social problem is so vast as to be insoluble in its entirety, it is still worth mitigating,” and offer us an inspirational Hawaiian parable  where a man goes out on the beach and sees it covered with starfish that have washed up in the tide.  A little boy is picking them up and throwing them back in the water. “What are you doing, son?” the man asks.  “You see how many starfish there are?  You’ll never make a difference.” The boy pauses thoughtfully, picks up another starfish and throws it into the ocean, saying “It sure made a difference to that one.”

 The crashing metaphorical descent of women from “holding up half the sky” to lying helplessly washed-ashore on a beach is striking.  Few women would feel flattered by this image of themselves as stranded starfish, waiting for the rescuing hands of a little boy.  If they surrendered to the metaphor, they might ask what exactly was going on with these tides that keep washing them up on this beach, and might have a hunch that these tidal mechanisms are not lunar but of human making.  Some suspicious starfish might even grimly wonder about the arrangements that have kept the man and boy safely wandering the beach. If women are rights-bearers with dignity and entitlements, their mass-stranding must raise questions of justice and not merely generate appeals to charity.

The ubiquitous insistence that women’s inclusion is “good for development” is not identical to showing that particular forms of development are good for women. Many “economic opportunities” the book celebrates, such as micro-credit, require shoeless women to boot-strap themselves to “success,” working harder and harder to compensate for the improvidence of men-folk, the impoverishment of nation states, the depredations of corporations, the vagaries of markets and the destabilizing neo-liberal policies of international financial institutions.  The book offers no analysis of these background conditions.  It does not require us, the global affluent, to connect the corpulence of our consumption patterns to the precarious prospects of these others.  Protecting the human rights of poor women in poor countries will take more than our browsing the aid organizations in the book’s appendix and deciding between whether to help runaway girls in Mumbai or loan money to a woman furniture-maker in Paraguay.

Uma Narayan is Professor in the Department of Philosophy, Vassar College, New York.


4 thoughts on “Women – rights-bearers, economic assets, or stranded starfish? Uma Narayan”

  1. Thank you for this brilliant reading of the book, from a starfish stranded in Johannesburg :)

  2. Brilliant review, Uma. Thanks, Nivedita, for posting. Much in the review parallels Chandra Mohanty’s early critique in “Under Western Eyes” of the construction of “the Third World Woman” as central to the meliorist discourse of late 20th century western feminisms. I share the anxieties implicit in any wholehearted endorsement of greater women’s participation in the military as evidence of progress in women’s rights. As employers, the military, world over, is a notoriously unequal paymaster with many internal glass ceilings, but more importantly, one must wonder at the ways in which women too are co-opted into the visions of strength and patriotism that the military offers. And for those of us who are quick to condemn women terrorists or suicide bombers as brainwashed creatures, we might do well to train our eye at our own armies and navies. This is not to devalue the work that individual men and women in the military do, but to understand that the great demands that the nation places on their bodies and minds may well instrumentalize them for a bubble called “the greater good.”

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