(Article changed on March 4, 2013 at 09:26)Young girls are raped, kidnapped, tortured and enslaved. Genital mutilation is an institution. Rape victims are forced to leave their families. Girls are abused and exploited by family members.
Half the Sky, Nicholas Kristof's documentary of the treatment of girls and women across the developing world, is a must-see. It documents the ubiquity of the abuse of women and girls throughout the world. While I was hopeful, while watching it, that that ubiquity would be apparent to those of us in the developed world, the fact that so many of the countries shown were in the developing world, makes it easy to discount the abuse as removed from our "civilized" lives. This is one of many problems with Half the Sky; problems which have been identified by a number of critics.
Much of the criticism has focused on Kristof's obliviousness to his own white privilege in his role as riding into these developing countries on the proverbial "white horse" to save these oppressed women - his access (along with that of the attractive celebrities he brings with him) - taken for granted, his right to ask the most intimate questions unchallenged. As Sunil Bhatia puts it in the Feminist Wire:
"Kristof never really explores in depth in his book, documentary, or his columns about how his position as an American, white, male journalist or how his power and privilege as a New York Times columnist allow him to trespass other cultures and become an observer to human tragedies"
The article goes on to criticise the unspoken role of the type of economic exploitation highlighted by Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine, by developed nations such as the U.S., in Kristofs' analysis.
These are important and valid criticisms. My criticisms of the film - however crucial I think its journalistic value is - are perhaps a bit simpler.
First, while Half the Sky is ultimately social commentary - while it is going into current situations of abuse - it is in fact a clinical enterprise. And as those in that sort of line of work know (I was a low level social worker in my previous life) much care has to be taken in these types of situations. Kristof speaks to victims, abusers, and peddlers of genital mutilation as an observer, but he is - of course - also making a kind of intervention. He is, of course, hoping to make things better, but he has to be sure he is at least not making things worse. In order to do that, it would have been helpful to have people trained in those kinds of interventions along with him. Instead, he arms himself with celebrities, in addition to local activists (for obvious reasons.)
There are a few instances throughout the film, where that decision is questionable. One in particular, is when they enter the home of a bright student whose father is not encouraging her in opportunities for study. She says that he, instead, forces her to sell lottery tickets on the street as well as doing all the household work for the family, beating her if she does not sell enough tickets. Kristof's group somewhat subtly confronts the father, asking him what it would take for him to be proud of his daughter - on camera. After they leave father and daughter alone, I wondered: would he realize that he was being criticized in front of a national audience and take it out on her?
In another instance, the group confronts a practitioner of genital mutilation who admits that her livelihood is dependent upon the practice. The resident celebrity does little to hide her disgust. How will that exchange change the dynamics in that village?
In addition to this type of thoughtlessness, Half the Sky does what so many other explorers of injustice to women do - it maddeningly touches up against the tremendous, but uncounted, economic contributions women throughout the world make to their communities, while ultimately failing to really take it into account. Most starkly, George Clooney at one point recites a long list of the work that women do in the countries involved, similar to the list Marilyn Waring uses in her work on women's uncounted economic contributions. Yet, when it comes time to propose a solution to all of this abuse of women, Half the Sky disappoints with a solution that has already been found to be deeply flawed: microfinancing .
The film makes passing reference to mixed results for their solution, but sings its praises endlessly nonetheless. There are several problems - besides the fact that it has been found not to work in the long term - with this solution.
1) It perpetuates the idea that the work these women are doing - some of which is exhausting, and peaks during childbearing years - is not worth considering as work. Despite Clooney's list of unpaid work, the film brings on a string of female authorities, almost scolding these women that they must "participate" in the economy. What do these experts think the women have been doing all along?;
2) It adds to the burdens these women bear with the additional burden of attempting to start a new business, which may or may not be successful;
3) Most of the women shown smilingly showing off their businesses are way past childbearing years, and many have extricated themselves from living with men altogether;
4) They don't provide a solution for child care for younger women entering this solution, or the ambitious careers they encourage them to prepare for.
As I began, I strongly encourage everyone to see this film, in order to understand the nature of the problem. However, I hope we can go beyond the interventions and solutions offered here. Women's worldwide equality requires more systemic changes: in cultural assumptions (which we developed countries should not consider ourselves above), in the structure of work, in the measurement of economies, and in the type of economic exploitation that Naomi Klein has uncovered.