Starting off on the Wrong FootSeptember 14, 2009
Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times has been a champion of women and girls by bringing issues that affect them to the forefront; he has devoted much of his column space to everything from rape as a weapon of war/conflict to acid attacks to microfinance and women’s economic development. He and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, have embarked on a great journey to bring these issues even more attention by conducting research and writing Half the Sky. I had heard about this book long ago and waited months for its release. I started reading it the other night, excited about the prospect that crimes committed against women would become something that more people would hear, read, and talk about. Perhaps more people would even do something in support of the world’s population of women and girls, because I believe in the purpose of Kristof and WuDunn’s book and what their goals seem to be.
That said, I started reading the introduction, and on page xv, I came across this quote:
“In the wealthy countries of the West, discrimination is usually a matter of unequal pay or underfunded sports teams or unwanted touching from a boss. In contrast, in much of the world discrimination is lethal.” (Kristof & WuDunn, 2009)
I am so dismayed by this quote that I don’t even know where to begin. I understand the sentiment, but those two sentences are a gross simplification of issues affecting women in the West. Sure, unequal pay and the like are not “lethal” manifestations of gender discrimination, but they’re still discriminatory practices that are systemic indicators of a social order in the West and across the globe. Even beyond that, there are plenty of women and girls in the United States and the West in general who die at the hands of gender discrimination. Hate crimes against females are not limited to developing countries and rural areas — they’re a reality everywhere.
Take, for instance, the shooting at a gym in Pennsylvania that happened this summer. The killer targeted women as a way to get revenge for not getting a date or having a relationship, and according to the New York Times report, he prepared for the shooting nine months ahead of time. Women (notably Western women in the United States) were not behaving the way this guy wanted or expected, so he decided to take it upon himself to kill women, specifically. (By the way, Jessica at Feministing has a couple of great posts about this incident here and here.)
Another example of lethal gender discrimination in the West was the incident in a Pennsylvania schoolhouse in which 10 Amish girls were shot. According to the news report, the shooter divided the students and adults into groups of males and females. Then he let the boys go and “lined the girls against the blackboard, bound their feet and shot them execution-style in the head.”
I could go on and on, including more examples of “lethal” forms of gender discrimination that exist in the United States and other Western countries, but I think I’ve made my point.
The two examples cited above were covered by mainstream, national-level media. These examples do not include all the crimes committed against women (rape, mutilation, and homicide, etc.) elsewhere in the United States that are not covered by national media or may not even be reported to law enforcement officials in the first place.
Don’t get me wrong — I’m not trying to dismiss the point of Kristof and WuDunn’s book, but that doesn’t give them free reign to dismiss the work of women’s and human rights organizations that focus primarily on Western women or issues specific to individual Western countries. They shouldn’t oversimplify and dismiss the women in the West who die at the hands of their rapists, partners, family members, or even strangers. That quote is offensive because hate and violence against women is a pervasive problem everywhere.
Rather than discounting gender discrimination in the West, it should be included in the discussion and recognition of a global problem. Not all women experience lethal forms of discrimination, but that does not mean that those in the United States and other Western countries do not suffer at the hands of others. I hope others take these thoughts into consideration when reading Half the Sky.