“Your Women Are Oppressed, But Ours Are Awesome”: How Nicholas Kristof And Half The Sky Use Women Against Each Other

By Guest Contributor Sayantani DasGupta

I just saw the most problematic image on Facebook. It was a photo of four blonde female pilots in combat gear with the caption, Hey Taliban, look up in the sky! Your women can’t drive, but ours CAN!

Despite the issues I have with militarism, or this country’s campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, I’m all for cheering for female pilots (yea, bada&& flying ladies!). What I can’t just can’t stand by and let slide is this “your women are oppressed, but ours are awesome” rhetoric, a rhetoric which only illuminates how–both actually and metaphorically–racism, xenophobia, and imperialism so often play out on women’s bodies around the world.

To me, this photo represents how blithely and blindly women from the Global North allow ourselves to be used as (actual and metaphorical) weapons of war against women from the Global South. In fact, that offensive caption isn’t significantly different from comments I’ve been hearing this week like, “These are countries where women have very little value.”

Sadly, the place where I’ve been hearing such phrases isn’t on some conservative TV program or website (where I think that all-woman pilot photo originated), but rather, on the PBS film Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women, a well-publicized neo-liberal “odyssey through Asia and Africa” hosted by everyone’s favorite white savior New York Times reporter, Nikolas Kristof.

New York Times reporter Nikolas Kristof in “Half The Sky.”

Inspired by a book co-written by Kristof and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, and supported by talking head cameos from the likes of Hillary Clinton, Gloria Steinem, George Clooney, and officials from the United Nations, CARE, and other non profit and development organizations, the film, unfortunately, reeks of KONY 2012 style missteps.  In fact, in ‘white man’s burden’ style, Kristof even says at one point, “When you have won the lottery of life that there is some obligation some responsibility we have to discharge.”

Perhaps reflecting this sense of noblesse oblige, the film is based on an amazingly problematic premise: the camera crew follows Kristof as he travels to various countries in the Global South to examine issues of violence against women–from rape in Sierra Leone, to sex trafficking in Cambodia, from maternal mortality and female genital cutting in Somaliland, to intergenerational prostitution in India. Because, hey, all the histories and cultures and situations of these countries are alike, right? (Um, no.) Oh, and he doesn’t go alone! Kristof travels with famous American actresses like Eva Mendez, Meg Ryan, Diane Lane, Gabrielle Union, and America Ferrera on this bizarre whirlwind global tour of gender violence.

There are plenty of critiques I could make of Kristof’s reporting (in this film and beyond, see this great round-up of critiques for more). Critiques about voyeurism and exotification: the way that global gender violence gets made pornographic, akin to what has been in other contexts called “poverty porn.”

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”?

In her book Regarding the Pain of OthersSusan Sontag suggested that images of distant, suffering bodies in fact inure the watcher, limiting as opposed to inspiring action:

Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers. The question of what to do with the feelings that have been aroused, the knowledge that has been communicated. If one feels that there is nothing ‘we’ can do — but who is that ‘we’? — and nothing ‘they’ can do either — and who are ‘they’ — then one starts to get bored, cynical, apathetic.

The issue of agency is also paramount. In the graduate seminar I teach on Narrative, Health, and Social Justice in the Master’s Program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University, I often ask my students to evaluate a text’s ethical stance by asking themselves–“whose story is it?” For example, are people of color acting or being acted upon? Although the film does highlight fantastic on-the-ground activists such as maternal-health activist Edna Adan of Somaliland, the point of entry–the people with whom we, the (presumably) Western watchers, are supposed to identify–are Kristof and his actress sidekick-du-jour.

In fact, many have critiqued Kristof for his repeated focus on himself as “liberator” of oppressed women. As Laura Augustín points out in her essay “The Soft Side of Imperialism”:

Here he is beaming down at obedient-looking Cambodian girls, or smiling broadly beside a dour, unclothed black man with a spear, whilst there he is with Ashton and Demi, Brad and Angelina, George Clooney. He professes humility, but his approach to journalistic advocacy makes himself a celebrity. He is the news story: Kristof is visiting, Kristof is doing something.

Beyond his self-promotion, there remains the issue of whose story Kristof is telling. He has, in fact, answered critiques of his reporting style–which often focuses on white outsiders going to Asian or African countries–by saying that this choice is purposeful. When asked why he often portrays “black Africans as victims” and “white foreigners as their saviors,” he has answered, “One way to get people to read…is to have some sort of American they can identify with as a bridge character.” A presumption which assumes that all New York Times readers are white, of course, but I won’t get into that now.

Finally, and most problematically, Half the Sky replicates the same dynamic of that dreadful pilot photo by focusing solely on the oppressions of the Global South.

Although a few passing comments are made about rape, coerced sex work, and other gender-based violence existing everywhere in the world–including in the U.S., hello?!–the point that is consistently reiterated in the film is that gender oppression is “worse” in “these countries”–that it is a part of “their culture.” In fact, at one point, on the issue of female genital cutting, Kristof tells actress Diane Lane, “That may be [their] culture, but it’s also a pretty lousy aspect of culture.”

There’s nothing that smacks more of “us and them” talk than these sorts of statements about “their culture.” Postcultural critic Gayatri Chakrovorty Spivak, in fact, coined the term “white men saving brown women from brown men” to describe the imperialist use of women’s oppression as justification for political aggression.

Although Spivak was writing about British bans of widow burning and child marriage in India to make her point, we can see the reflections of this dynamic is the way that the US has justified wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as missions to “free Islamic women from the Veil.” (For a fantastic critique of this rationale, see Lila Abu-Lughod’s “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?“) According to Spivak, this trope of “white men rescuing brown women from brown men” becomes used to justify the imperialist project of “white man” over “brown man.”

And this formulation is consistent, pretty much across the board, with the film. White/Western dwelling men and women highlight the suffering, as well as local activism, of brown and black women. Brown and black men are portrayed consistently as violent, incompetent, uncaring or, in fact, invisible. And it’s only a small leap to realize that such formulations–of countries incapable of or unwilling to care for “their” women–only reinforce rather than undermine global patriarchy, while justifying paternalization, intervention–and even invasion of these “lesser” places–by the countries of the Global North.

Actress America Ferrera in “Half The Sky.” Via Zap2it.com

I’m certainly not making the case that gender-based violence is a good thing. Of course, we should work against it in our own personal location; of course, we should focus (as part of the film does) on, support, and follow the lead set by those fantastic global activists already organizing around these issues in their particular locations. The problem becomes when the process of international support takes on more importance than it should–when the shocked look on Meg Ryan’s face or the tears on Diane Lane’s or the colorful-exotic shots of Western-attired Olivia Wilde dancing with traditionally dressed and bead-wearing Kenyan village women becomes the primary focus.

And these actresses are not there to share, say, their own stories of gender violence, or because they are already involved in anti-gender violence work in the U.S. or even work already going on in these countries. Rather, they are there as tourists of violence, often visiting those countries for the first time with Kristof. They are wealthy celebrities whose lives, as Meg Ryan tells one sex trafficked Cambodian teen, are “far from” the experience they were witnessing. As well-known, even aspirational, figures to most Western viewers, they not only mediate the viewer’s relationship to the local women but mandate the viewer’s visual and emotional allegiance. Their mere presence interferes with the viewer’s ability to feel any true sense of affiliation with those local African or Asian women. Instead, they unwittingly reinforce the “your women are oppressed, but ours are awesome” dynamic.

I don’t mean to say that these actresses–or Kristof and WuDunn, for that matter–don’t mean well. They clearly do. The problem is that sometimes good intentions can do bad work; supposed “solutions” can effectively reinscribe the same dynamics between Global North and South that created the global economic and political inequities that facilitate gender based violence in the first place.

As feminist philosopher Linda Martín Alcoff argues in her essay “The Problem Of Speaking For Others,” that part of the problem of speaking for others is that none of us can transcend our social and cultural location: “The practice of privileged persons speaking for or on behalf of less privileged persons has actually resulted (in many cases) in increasing or reinforcing the oppression of the group spoken for,” she writes.

To Kristof’s and WuDunn’s credit, Half the Sky is clearly trying to bring attention to issues of global gender violence, mobilizing the celebrity status of a group of actresses toward this goal. Also to his credit, Kristof highlights the work of a local, on-the-ground activist during each “celebration of oppression” segment, and there is somewhat of a focus on women’s empowerment, at least by the end of the film.

As we in gender activism and public health have known forever, the film is right: educating, empowering, and organizing women makes healthy families, strengthens communities, and supports national growth. Yet, ultimately, the very nature of the film itself undermines its stated goals of global female empowerment. By telling other peoples “their” women are oppressed, while “our” women are awesome, Half the Sky undermines global sisterhood rather than strengthening it.

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  • http://twitter.com/sairakh Saira K.

    This was such an interesting critique to read. Thanks! Made me think of the Jodie Bieber Time Magazine cover photo from 2010 I believe. It was a photo of an Afghani girl who was the vicitm of a brutal crime and the headline was “What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan”. I’m not sure if I 100% agree with every point here but I do think this was a great piece.

  • http://twitter.com/sairakh Saira K.

    This was such an interesting critique to read. Thanks! Made me think of the Jodie Bieber Time Magazine cover photo from 2010 I believe. It was a photo of an Afghani girl who was the vicitm of a brutal crime and the headline was “What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan”. I’m not sure if I 100% agree with every point here but I do think this was a great piece.

  • Yogi

    While it is important to consider the “us” versus “them” discussion I believe that instead of generating this dialogue it is important to consider a multicultural perspective. Instead of pointing fingers at each other and criticizing the other’s perspectives it is imperative to work collectively together to provide agency for all and to establish a social action plan through thoughtful discussion and practice. While Half the Sky, the novel and the film, is told through a privileged white lens, the public is being presented with information about world travesties many individuals are not aware of. We have tools to educate others and to motivate them to take action with us against these travesties. I appreciate the content and context that is cited by Kristof so I can become a better educated ally to learn how I can come together with others to work towards a specific goal for women’s rights. I understand that Kristof’s microlevel messages can be seen as “undermining global sisterhood”, but it is Kristof’s macrolevel messages that inform the public of the travesties that are occurring throughout the world regarding women and it is these messages that encourage thoughtful, but aggressive action. Through his journalistic lens, Kristof encourages public education, awareness and gender activism.

  • Hillary

    Great article! I really appreciate the critique of the ‘white male savior’ and the extension of the discussion to ‘the Global North Savior.’ Writing from a US perspective, I am very challenged by the fact that there is an incredible amount of gender violence occurring around the world and in my own country, and where my place to intervene is. I am of the opinion that white folks from the US really shouldn’t be going on any sort of rescue missions to other countries, but should be working on their own contributions to the problem (US global conquest, colonialism, etc.) and supporting the efforts of those within communities in the Global South when asked. I also struggle with a feeling of US centric thinking when I recognize these issues are happening in my own country, and think that I should be focusing on that and not focusing my energy abroad. How can folks in the US work on issues of global gender violence on our land and within our own systems while still connecting (talking, sharing ideas/stories/experiences) with, learning with and supporting those in the Global South? Is it ever appropriate to enter a country in the Global South as a citizen of a country from the Global North? How is allyship formed around these issues?

  • Hillary

    Great article! I really appreciate the critique of the ‘white male savior’ and the extension of the discussion to ‘the Global North Savior.’ Writing from a US perspective, I am very challenged by the fact that there is an incredible amount of gender violence occurring around the world and in my own country, and where my place to intervene is. I am of the opinion that white folks from the US really shouldn’t be going on any sort of rescue missions to other countries, but should be working on their own contributions to the problem (US global conquest, colonialism, etc.) and supporting the efforts of those within communities in the Global South when asked. I also struggle with a feeling of US centric thinking when I recognize these issues are happening in my own country, and think that I should be focusing on that and not focusing my energy abroad. How can folks in the US work on issues of global gender violence on our land and within our own systems while still connecting (talking, sharing ideas/stories/experiences) with, learning with and supporting those in the Global South? Is it ever appropriate to enter a country in the Global South as a citizen of a country from the Global North? How is allyship formed around these issues?

  • results

    I would really like to know how many people who have responded here have actually read the book versus the movie (which I have not seen). The book is full of statistics about the scale of the problem of violence against women all over the world. The book focuses on the people, mostly locals, who are doing something to combat that violence. There is no other word for the massive scale of the violence but horrible. I am well aware that violence against women exists in the US, but it was not my impression that the authors would ever have wanted us to help abroad to the exclusion of helping here. Both are needed. And real global leadership from both South and North cannot come fast enough.

  • results

    I would really like to know how many people who have responded here have actually read the book versus the movie (which I have not seen). The book is full of statistics about the scale of the problem of violence against women all over the world. The book focuses on the people, mostly locals, who are doing something to combat that violence. There is no other word for the massive scale of the violence but horrible. I am well aware that violence against women exists in the US, but it was not my impression that the authors would ever have wanted us to help abroad to the exclusion of helping here. Both are needed. And real global leadership from both South and North cannot come fast enough.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=809243997 Bridget Trent

    For someone interested in international activism, what would be the best way to present these issues to a Western audience without, well all the fail of this venture (or Kony campaign, dear lord that was so bad…)

    I assume for starters a grassroots method would be good so people of these regions have their own agency? As opposed to White Dude coming in being like, “ermehgerd poverty!!!!”

    From learning about the the issues facing Palestinians, I noticed that the best modes of activism are headed my Palestinians themselves. I assume this would be the same for other global issues?

    Is it even possible for the privileged to be involved telling these women’s stories and still have it be for these women?
    Ugh, as a White westerner I find these things so embarrassing :/

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=809243997 Bridget Trent

    For someone interested in international activism, what would be the best way to present these issues to a Western audience without, well all the fail of this venture (or Kony campaign, dear lord that was so bad…)

    I assume for starters a grassroots method would be good so people of these regions have their own agency? As opposed to White Dude coming in being like, “ermehgerd poverty!!!!”

    From learning about the the issues facing Palestinians, I noticed that the best modes of activism are headed my Palestinians themselves. I assume this would be the same for other global issues?

    Is it even possible for the privileged to be involved telling these women’s stories and still have it be for these women?
    Ugh, as a White westerner I find these things so embarrassing :/

  • http://twitter.com/Sayantani16 Sayantani DasGupta

    Thanks for the support Jeanne – Yes, I’ve come to the conclusion that most people think that to critique something is to say it shouldn’t exist altogether. Whereas, I think an insightful critique is actually a way of being a responsible reader – a way of saying “how can we do this better?” As opposed to something that has NO redeeming value, I think that there are critical issues about women’s lives being discussed here – it’s simply the HOW that I take issue with. Sometimes the very way we frame something undermines our original intent… Anyway, long way around of saying thank YOU for your comment! (and yes, I know the baby kitten fur handbag feeling! :)

  • http://twitter.com/Sayantani16 Sayantani DasGupta

    Thanks for the support Jeanne – Yes, I’ve come to the conclusion that most people think that to critique something is to say it shouldn’t exist altogether. Whereas, I think an insightful critique is actually a way of being a responsible reader – a way of saying “how can we do this better?” As opposed to something that has NO redeeming value, I think that there are critical issues about women’s lives being discussed here – it’s simply the HOW that I take issue with. Sometimes the very way we frame something undermines our original intent… Anyway, long way around of saying thank YOU for your comment! (and yes, I know the baby kitten fur handbag feeling! :)

  • http://twitter.com/Sayantani16 Sayantani DasGupta

    Absolutely, Lee! I wasn’t necessarily the one who picked that caption and will mention to the editor (if we don’t know her name, that’s certainly something to point out). Thanks for your read and comment!

  • http://twitter.com/Sayantani16 Sayantani DasGupta

    Absolutely, Lee! I wasn’t necessarily the one who picked that caption and will mention to the editor (if we don’t know her name, that’s certainly something to point out). Thanks for your read and comment!

  • http://twitter.com/Sayantani16 Sayantani DasGupta

    Thanks for your comment, Clare – I’ve been trying to respond consistently to comments (if you read above) and have some suggestions – but overall, to me, it’s about solidarity not ‘saving.’ It’s about letting women in their own contexts define the parameters and set the agendas and then, as outsiders, following their lead. Which, to it’s credit, this film does to some extent by highlighting local advocates and activists. But as I say, there’s a lot of other things that happen that undermine this good work.

  • http://twitter.com/Sayantani16 Sayantani DasGupta

    Thanks for your comment, Clare – I’ve been trying to respond consistently to comments (if you read above) and have some suggestions – but overall, to me, it’s about solidarity not ‘saving.’ It’s about letting women in their own contexts define the parameters and set the agendas and then, as outsiders, following their lead. Which, to it’s credit, this film does to some extent by highlighting local advocates and activists. But as I say, there’s a lot of other things that happen that undermine this good work.

  • Anonymous

    I would argue that “you as an American … have a choice” is a bit of a mirage. We *think* we have choices but our culture has pre-determined for us what we will decide on such issues just as the Moslem Kenyan woman’s culture has done. She doesn’t want to be a single woman in NYC and neither does Liberalcurmudgeon want to be a burqua-clad wife “protected” by her menfolk in Kenya. How much “choice” do each really have? Could “Liberalcurmudgeon” or the Kenyan woman survive happily in each other’s shoes? Not likely. Why? Because neither one has any real choices about such hugely disparate lifestyles as each other’s.

  • Anonymous

    I would argue that “you as an American … have a choice” is a bit of a mirage. We *think* we have choices but our culture has pre-determined for us what we will decide on such issues just as the Moslem Kenyan woman’s culture has done. She doesn’t want to be a single woman in NYC and neither does Liberalcurmudgeon want to be a burqua-clad wife “protected” by her menfolk in Kenya. How much “choice” do each really have? Could “Liberalcurmudgeon” or the Kenyan woman survive happily in each other’s shoes? Not likely. Why? Because neither one has any real choices about such hugely disparate lifestyles as each other’s.

  • izzy

    I am from Kenya and have worked with immigrant women in the US for many years. They told me stories that reflect what i saw in Half the Sky.
    Kristoff used celebrities because people watch celebrities, so he used that to spread the word. If George Clooney had not been involved in Darfur, less people would know about the genocide there.

    The issues Kristof reported on are real issues and yes i personally think that women in the Global south do not have as many rights, are abused, etc etc, They definitely are worse off than women in the Global north.
    So let’s call it what it is. We should be focusing on how we can help the women who are in those situations, now that Kristof has brought it to light for many more folks than the “enlightened” few who seem to be critical of his film.
    We cannot have it both ways. If people ignore what is happening in the Global south, its because they are self involved and don’t care, etc. If they do report on, albeit in ways that you may not like, we focus on irrelevant details rather than the issues at hand.

    I do agree think that the four blond pilots and the caption is not helpful. That is very different from Kristof’s film.
    Izzy

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  • Arslan

    Excellent piece. I’d like to add something that Kristof and his band of merry White Saviors seemed to have missed. First, when it comes to sex slavery in Southeast Asia and other developing countries, some people like to blame it on the culture without considering who this trade traditionally caters to. Obviously there are plenty of local men who patronize brothels but what seems to get a country a reptuation for prostitution is when it caters to sex tourism, much of which comes from the West and developed countries.

    The other issue is the complete evasion of Eastern Europe and Central Asia when it comes to prostitution and women trafficking. The sex trade in “Russian girls” became so prevalent after the fall of the East Bloc that in many countries the name ‘Natasha’ has become slang for a prostitute. In fact the very phrase “Russian girl” has been so stuck with that connotation that many times Eastern European women who aren’t ethnically Russia or even from Russia are promoted on the streets as “Russian girls.” In reality, while Russia still has a major problem with trafficking and prostitution, rising living standards(among other factors) seem to have ended Russia’s image as a sex tourism destination. Unforuntately I cannot say the same for Ukraine, where the standards of living and hopes for the future are lower and the visa regime more relaxed.

    This also demonstrates the problem of dividing the world into Global North/South. Russia and Eastern Europe exist between such definitions. Russian girls are “white” and are in high demand not only in “white” countries but also in nations like China, Saudi Arabia, India, Japan, etc. By ignoring them many Americans are projecting whiteness onto those women, conferring privileges on them which they do not have. Moreover, because many people see them as white, we ignore the fact that women trafficking and prostitution not only racialize but ethnicize the prostituted women, branding them as products, e.g. “Russian girl,” “Asian girl,” etc. To Americans one it might not be clear how seemingly “white people” can be discriminated against and degraded for their ethnicity, but let me tell you that if you were part Ukrainian and you started avoid bringing up Ukraine in many conversations simply because you’re sick of hearing some man say “beautiful girls”(because this is the only important thing about Ukraine) or even worse, talk about his exploits with prostitutes in Ukraine, you would understand.

    • http://twitter.com/Sayantani16 Sayantani DasGupta

      Absolutely, thank you for bringing this important point us, Arsian! Yet another way that Kristof’s reporting of sex work (primarily in Asia, Africa) underscores (consciously or unconsciously) notions of these continents being full of impoverished ‘backward cultures’… Thanks for your read and comment!

    • http://twitter.com/Sayantani16 Sayantani DasGupta

      Absolutely, thank you for bringing this important point us, Arsian! Yet another way that Kristof’s reporting of sex work (primarily in Asia, Africa) underscores (consciously or unconsciously) notions of these continents being full of impoverished ‘backward cultures’… Thanks for your read and comment!

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  • Gopal Mukerjee

    Outstanding article, Ms Dasgupta. Pretty much covers everything I’ve been gnashing my teeth about for years. However, the quote from Gayatri Spivak (a truly awesome intellect) could just as easily read: “white women saving brown women from brown men”. The white memsahib must descend into the cesspit of “Third World” barbarism and “rescue” her brown sisters. That’s the key white liberal feminist trope (assimilated in its entirety by our own brown memsahibs). But what is the brown subaltern to be rescued from? From her own backward, oppressive (i.e. non-white) “culture”. It’s all about an invariant, dehistoricized (and thoroughly demonized) “culture” untouched by the hegemonic savagery of the Western military-industrial machine. Discourse originating in the metropolitan West is, for the most part, shot through with notions of Western exceptionalism and cultural/racial supremacy. Sadly, western feminism is no exception.

    • http://twitter.com/Sayantani16 Sayantani DasGupta

      absolutely! thanks for your comment..

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  • http://twitter.com/Sayantani16 Sayantani DasGupta

    Thank you for your comment, Fahima. Yes, as several people have pointed out, it’s so critical to look at the whole picture – discuss oppression in structural and not individual terms, therefore understanding gender violence not just in terms of “backward culture” (which I felt this film kept falling into) but global economics, histories of violence and invasion, imperialism, and yes, additionally, patriarchal cultural beliefs (which all countries of the world manifest, in various ways…) Perhaps by doing so, Western activists could realize why loud, vocal, public support of feminist causes in countries of the Global South might undermine the very causes they seek to support, putting feminists in the Global South in a real bind in doing their critically important work!

  • http://twitter.com/Sayantani16 Sayantani DasGupta

    Yes, excellent point – it’s a double edged sword, not good for women in the Global North or South…

  • http://twitter.com/Sayantani16 Sayantani DasGupta

    I know, I do realize that now – for some reason I missed that the first time I watched it! But I still think the overall point, that focusing on outside actresses and their reactions, was less than ideal. but I do thank you for your comment!

  • http://twitter.com/Sayantani16 Sayantani DasGupta

    sure, point well taken re: hijacking stories… but I just couldn’t figure out why they were there! (Eva Mendez also, is an actress of color, but all are not of the places they visited, nor had they any experience there..) thanks for your comment!

  • Anonymous

    Thanks so much for this critique, Sayantani. I watched part of the film (the America Ferrera and Olivia Wilde section) and had to stop because I felt it just exacerbated all the worst parts of the book.

    My other concern with both the text and this film is how prevalent it’s becoming in feminist teaching. I was required to teach this book when it came out to my intro class and, at least amongst my program’s administration, there was no question of the very deep problems both in the structure and the content, most of which you have very eloquently laid out here. Even the points that are most directly aimed at undergrads underscore the Western supremacy of the writing; for instance, Kristof emphasizes that college students should consider studying abroad in a country with systematic oppression against women…as if they’re not already living in that country. Not to study abroad because they have an interest in a country’s particular culture, history or language. But to study abroad so they can help women. Cambodia will do just as fine as the Congo.

    At the time I taught the book, there were a few op-eds critiquing some of the more blatant acts of white saviorism in Kristof’s columns (like where he ‘buys’ two Thai prostitutes out of sex slavery), but there wasn’t very much else. I’m glad to see that your article and other pieces have started to raise the very real pitfalls of this kind of ‘global’ feminism.

    • http://twitter.com/Sayantani16 Sayantani DasGupta

      Thank you Celia for your thoughtful comment! It is distressing that the text is becoming a ‘go to’ textbook without accompanying critique! And your point about Cambodia doing just as fine as Congo – so distressing. How to have a real dialogue around this on campuses – among both students and faculty?

  • http://twitter.com/Sayantani16 Sayantani DasGupta

    yes, k.eli – that was indeed was I was trying to say. Thanks for saying it so well!

  • http://twitter.com/Sayantani16 Sayantani DasGupta

    thanks for your comment, Jeannette. I think solidarity is important, of course, and part of solidarity is self-examination. Have you seen the tumblr “oppressed brown women doing things” it’s very much in line with your comment… http://oppressedbrowngirlsdoingthings.tumblr.com/

  • http://twitter.com/Sayantani16 Sayantani DasGupta

    oh, that Australian image is equally distressing. Yes, I also thought the caption to that “Hey Taliban” image might extend to… “… but it doesn’t really matter that ‘your’women can’t drive because we’re coming to bomb their houses and communities and cars and bodies anyway…” distressing and disturbing…

  • http://www.facebook.com/mahi.palanisami Mahi Palanisami

    Nicely written, and your points were nicely stated. Your stated conflict between cultural social structures would make a very interesting documentary if framed in an inviting style.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1048175994 Jannah Bint Hannah

    My girlfriend and I are both childhood rape survivors. We started trying to watch that program from the beginning, but it was way too triggery for us. We could not get through the first half-hour of it. We had to shut it off and deal with some very painful flashbacks. We wish it had come with a trigger warning.

    • http://twitter.com/Sayantani16 Sayantani DasGupta

      I’m so sorry. Jannah, I agree

  • Arakiba

    Some Americans are so shallow they won’t watch anything if a celebrity’s not in it.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/penny.white.716 Penny White

    I have mixed feelings about the documentary, but none about its intentions. Evil flourishes in the dark, and as imperfect as this documentary is, it does shine a light on children having their clitoris and labia carved off and their vulvas stitched into chastity belts from which urine and menstrual blood leak out very slowly, all month long, and makes childbirth incredibly dangerous. It does shine a light on little girls and their mothers being kicked out of their homes and ostracized from their communities for attempting to prosecute a rapist (which was very recently a common occurrence in this country). It also shines the light on forced prostitution (which is prevalent in this country, as well) and on the lack of educational opportunities for girls (which is also prevalent in this country). The film needed to address the fact that many of the struggles women in the developing world are facing are struggles we face in the West as well. The documentary failed to do that, which is a shame. Because this did result in a “Superior Us/Inferior Them” message. Still, I hope such documentaries will continue to be made. There is no greater form of oppression than having your suffering ignored.

    • http://twitter.com/Sayantani16 Sayantani DasGupta

      Thank you for your comment Penny. I agree that having one’s suffering ignored or silenced is a part and parcel of oppression. However, I think a really important question to ask is – ignored by whom? Because the thing that we in the West often forget is the fabulous and important on the ground work going on in various countries – which, to it’s credit, this film tried to actually highlight. I was once on a panel with Egyptian feminist activist, physician and author Nawaal El Saadwi. She said something really interesting about female genital cutting. She said that Western feminist were in fact undermining the attempts of local (Egyptian, other African) feminists to organize around the issue because 1. local feminists were now faced with their communities thinking of them as slaves to imperialist forces, and therefore their message was less likely to be heard 2. local feminists themselves felt this need to ‘defend’ their communities to the outside world from charges of ‘backwardness’, etc. I think this is a really important point – that sometimes the outrage of outsiders actually undermines the very goals they are seeking. Sometimes it’s just as important to listen, follow, and economically support the efforts of local people (like Edna Adan) as it is to speak. (I’m not saying NOT to speak, rather, to listen first, so we can figure our how best to speak, or to speak in different ways…)

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  • Anonymous

    Lila Abu-Lughod’s “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?“

    She lost me at the end when she blamed colonialism and genocide on “secular humanism” Uhhhh….. no.

    Also I really dislike her apparent refusal to question the idea that religion is a basic good. She never addresses the question of why women are supposed to be “modest” but men aren’t.

  • Anonymous

    And I’ve got female enlisted friends who were raped by their “comrades in arms.” Do my anecdata outweigh yours?

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  • Melody

    I was moved by the film, but found myself thinking, “What is with the celebrity tag-alongs?” I also noticed the “invisibility” of native men – or their only visible place as bistanders or perpetrators of violence against women. This was bothersome to me and I felt manipulated by it. Your commentary here has answered many puzzling thoughts/feelings I had. I will say that I am grateful to have watched and to have learned more about the particular plights of my sisters around the globe. For my part, I found the examples of courageous women – working within their sphere of influence to liberate other women – extremely compelling. I have opportunity to be such a woman in my own small sphere of influence and this film – these women – bolstered my courage to move ahead into meaningful work in the area of women’s rights. Thank you for articulating the global “us and them” problems with the author and with the film. You have widened my view. Thank you again.

  • Adrienne

    I completely agree with the critique. I went to see a screening of this film at my school with my roommate and I was very uncomfortable the whole time. The part that DasGupta mentions about Kristof asking the African girl about her experience with rape seemed extremely disrespectful and invasive. I also agree with your point about the way it made men in these countries look. It also made me wonder about why these women were so trusting of Kristof, or rather why Kristof expected these women to be so trusting and open with him given their prior negative experience with men. I also found its implicit juxtaposition of western “civilization” against the “barbarian” nature of people (esp. men) of color was very problematic.

  • Meenakshi

    Thanks very much for this article — sharp critique, on the spot.

  • miriam shelton

    I have a mixed response to this article. I recorded the documentary but have only watched about five minutes of it and those five minutes dampened my enthusiasm for watching the rest of it, for the same reasons discussed here. Nonetheless, I just returned from a trip to a third world country. I was impressed both by the strength of the women I met and the overwhelming poverty of the country (with all its predictable social problems). Upon my return, I couldn’t stop talking about it, it worked itself into every conversation for days. And this is a situation I hear often from people I know who work internationally. Cross-cultural encounters and talk about them are inherently complex, both when you are the more or the less privileged party in the encounter, or how one measures privilege. Critique is always in order, but it should also acknowledge that it has no solution to offer, or a better way that won’t itself be subject to other critiques. It’s not just difficult to speak FOR another, but also OF another, and yet I’m still a firm believer in open borders and encounters that push us beyond comfort and compel us to want to talk about it far beyond our ability to speak authoritatively or even cogently.

  • http://twitter.com/Sayantani16 Sayantani DasGupta

    thanks for your comments and sharing your story! Reminds me of Abu-Lughod’s “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?” (the link in the article is broken but someone above posted a good link, I’ll get the article link fixed ASAP too)

  • Anonymous

    This piece makes some great points, there is a lot of uncomfortable “White gaze upon a zoo” in documentaries such as these. However, regardless of where, this stuff is *happening* and we need to acknowledge that and call it what it is. Many people like to hide behind cultural relativism when nonsense like Purdah goes down, but it’s not ok and needs to be shamed and stopped, whether it’s extreme homophobia in Russia, or fgm in Somalia.

  • Anonymous

    This piece makes some great points, there is a lot of uncomfortable “White gaze upon a zoo” in documentaries such as these. However, regardless of where, this stuff is *happening* and we need to acknowledge that and call it what it is. Many people like to hide behind cultural relativism when nonsense like Purdah goes down, but it’s not ok and needs to be shamed and stopped, whether it’s extreme homophobia in Russia, or fgm in Somalia.

    • http://twitter.com/Sayantani16 Sayantani DasGupta

      Thanks for your comment. Gender violence IS happening – you are absolutely right – and EVERYWHERE. But I think that allowing activist women’s groups FROM THE COMMUNITIES IN QUESTION to set the agendas and set the lead in these struggles is key (as this film does, in fact, take a step in doing. it just then undermines that very gesture by some other decisions). Solidarity and partnership, not ‘saving’ is the key, at least to me.

  • Joyce

    “Hey Taliban, look up in the sky… Your women can’t drive, but ours can!”

    This statement is also written to and for men. Who are the Taliban? And who is meant by “ours”? Also, “your women” and “ours” imply possession.

    • http://twitter.com/Sayantani16 Sayantani DasGupta

      I agree Joyce, thank you for the comment and read!

    • Jugoro Kaminari

      The problem part is the “ours”- If it was “women in our society” then it would be fair as it doesn’t imply that women in the US “belong” to men. Now, the Taliban really do believe in possessing women, and just about everybody in US society feels disgusted by the Taliban, so if the “possession” was removed the poster would be better

  • Sara

    I really appreciate this article because while reading “Half The Sky”, despite his best intentions, he really encourages people to work in a top-down approach without understanding the people they are trying to save; the issue with this approach is how the audience is not able to engage with the native people.
    I also agree with the author about how it is problematic that Kristof speak so freely about women from Africa and Asia about deep issues with cameras but give more privacy to Western women. It does seem to divide women rather than encouraging women to come together.

    • http://twitter.com/Sayantani16 Sayantani DasGupta

      Thank you for the comment, Sara. Even the issue of “saving” implies top down vs. what Paul Farmer has called “partnership in health” (not that Farmer is without critique, but I think being conscious of that approach is key.) It’s very much like that saying “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have
      come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work
      together.”

      which is attributed to Lilla Watson, an Aboriginal Austrailian woman addressing a missionary serving in her country

    • http://twitter.com/Sayantani16 Sayantani DasGupta

      Thank you for the comment, Sara. Even the issue of “saving” implies top down vs. what Paul Farmer has called “partnership in health” (not that Farmer is without critique, but I think being conscious of that approach is key.) It’s very much like that saying “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have
      come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work
      together.”

      which is attributed to Lilla Watson, an Aboriginal Austrailian woman addressing a missionary serving in her country

  • http://twitter.com/Sayantani16 Sayantani DasGupta

    Dear dersk, thanks for you comment. In writing a piece like this, my goal was to contribute to the ongoing discussions, thoughts, and critiques out there. My reaction to your question is this:
    1. These women’s bodies ARE ostensible weapons of war against Afghani women (if the implication of the caption is to believed, I don’t know where these pilots are going, or when, or even if this image was taken in wartime!). They – or pilots like them – are engaging in warfare in these women’s countries and potentially against them or their communities.
    2. The assumption that ALL U.S. women are “better” or at least “better off” than ALL Afghani women is (to use a milquetoast word), problematic. Which women? By whose standards? Is a, say, sex-trafficked and impoverished U.S. women better off than an educated Afghani woman who is running a school for girls? What does “better” mean?
    3. Ultimately, I think such assumptions are harmful to the women of the Global South (ie. Afghani women) but ALSO to the women from the Global North. These constructions help people ignore gender violence in our own locations – for instance, given the recent findings about sexual assault in the U.S. Military it is likely that some of these pilots might have been sexually assaulted by their own colleagues and superiors – see the film “The Invisible War” for more on this: http://invisiblewarmovie.com/
    4. What does “our women” and “your women” mean? To me, this too is unsavory – are women belonging to the men of their respective societies?
    I hope that these comments, as well as the argument in the rest of the piece about how constructions of “oppressed” vs. “non-oppressed” women are detrimental and contribute to xenophobia and imperialism.
    Thanks again for your comments!

    • D

      For me, the first argument is really all you need. Being part of the military industrial complex is NOT liberating to anyone.

    • D

      For me, the first argument is really all you need. Being part of the military industrial complex is NOT liberating to anyone.

  • dersk

    With regards to the picture, I really don’t understand how it’s problematic (well, the version of it that I saw specifically referred to Saudi society). Would you call it problematic to state that women in the US have more rights than in Saudi Arabia (or Afghanistan)? I guess I just don’t interpret it as “your women are oppressed, but ours are awesome” but “Aspects of our society are a lot better than yours.” Which, I think, is a fair statement.
    I’m not saying that perceiving it as ‘problematic’ (and the more I use it, the more I dislike that damp milquetoast of a word), I just don’t get the chain of associations that lead to “women from the Global North allow[ing] ourselves to be used as (actual and metaphorical) weapons of war against women from the Global South”

    • drcheeselove

      The very fact that the picture frames it as “our” women and “your” women should tell you that something fishy is going on. As if these two groups of women are owned by their cultures the way cattle are owned by farmers. Meanwhile, as these women are being tokenised to score points and make one culture look liberated, their home country is waging a war on women’s birth control. Even if one society is more liberal in certain aspects than another one, does that mean women from the first culture would want to be used in this manner in order to rub it in the faces of women from the other culture, as if there are no postcolonial/socio-political forces at work in shaping the other culture’s attitude toward women? It seems to me that if you’re a feminist, you don’t look at women in another country who are doing worse than you and treat it like you’ve just won a basketball game. Also, the fact that we don’t know who the poster is addressing (Saudi Arabia? Afghanistan?) is pretty problematic in itself.

    • http://www.facebook.com/amanda.olson.568 Amanda Olson

      A lot of people, including myself, believe in the notion that we are all in this together. The picture doesn’t allow for global sisterhood. The picture leads to “otherization” which allows for things like hate and war. http://www.smi.uib.no/seminars/Pensum/Abu-Lughod.pdf The link in the article wasn’t working, hopefully this one will work.

    • Anonymous

      I’m not sure I entirely agree with the author for the same reasons, but there is a problem using pictures like that. It frames women (all women, regardless of culture) as possessions of a male dominated country from a male PoV. The way it’s worded sounds less like “I’m cooler than you because of my achievements” and more like “my toys are better than your toys.” So first and foremost, it objectifies women to prove that “we” are better at not objectifying women. Second, the subjects of the photograph itself. They’re all young, white, thin, mostly blonde, smiling, conventionally attractive women. I honestly pick up an undertone of sexualization there. Like there’s an invisible subtitle, “and they’re so much hotter with their western looks and army fatigues than your brown women in hijabs.” And honestly, very little blame is put on the oppressors. The women controlled by the Taliban “can’t drive,” as opposed to “are not allowed to drive.” Maybe I’m just sensitive to the wording, but that carries the implication “your women suck and are defective by virtue of who they are,” as opposed to “you are oppressing your women and that will end badly for you.”

      And honestly, the history of the wars we’re engaged in in the Middle East. The American military has shown time and time again that it, as an institution, does not respect women. It can’t even be bothered to respect enlisted American women, with so many being victims of rape, assault, and harassment from their own coworkers, with little opportunity to speak out. With that said, how can the American military possibly be expected to treat other women any better than garbage? Well, they don’t. Male members of the military have been reported in disturbing numbers to have violently assaulted the (often underage) female civilians they’re supposed to be liberating from their oppressors. And just logically, you can’t just let loose a bomb and have it only kill the oppressors and have the oppressed standing right next to them walk away unscathed. So when another invisible subtitle could be “your women can’t even drive, so we’re going to use our sexy lady pilots to kill them indiscriminately from the skies,” the message is, indeed, hypocritical and problematic.

      • plummerc

        I am so glad to read this article. My own reaction to the film clips I saw was outrage and upset at the cultural imperialism, objectification of (third world) women, and presumptions galore. We need another and a better story!

      • plummerc

        I am so glad to read this article. My own reaction to the film clips I saw was outrage and upset at the cultural imperialism, objectification of (third world) women, and presumptions galore. We need another and a better story!