Oprah dedicated today's show to a star-studded discussion of the issues facing women around the world. Inviting Nicholas Kristof and his wife and co-author, Sheryl WuDunn to discuss their book Half the Sky, the conversation was both enlightening and frustrating.
Kristof begins by discussing how the problem of the 20th century was slavery and gender inequity is the major problem of the 21st. He and WuDunn then launched into a long-ranging discussion about their observations from global conflict zones. Celebrities like Angelina Jolie, George Clooney, Ben Affleck, Demi Moore, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also did segments for the show.
While the effort was wonderful for consciousness raising, some issues felt as though they were glossed over. For one thing, images of suffering women were shown often - but where were those who inflicted the suffering? A warlord was featured at the beginning of the show, but perpetrators were conspicuously absent from this narrative. Where were the pimps? Former sex slave Long Pross was stabbed in the eye by a female pimp - but this was barely touched upon. In the clip above, Kristof also brings up how the owner for one of the brothels is also an employee of the local police force.
Watching the segment reminded me of the frustration many activists felt when reading The Woman's Crusade article in the Saving The World's Women issue in the NY Times magazine. As Melissa over at Shakesville wrote:
If I'm not mistaken, I just read seven pages that are the philosophical equivalent of "She got raped." Passive. Rape is something that happens to women. Something that gets done to them.
So, apparently, is worldwide institutional oppression.
I don't guess I need to say that I am all for giving women around the world every tool, every resource, every dollar and dinar, every bit of choice and opportunity and access, everything possible to lift themselves up and achieve everything they could want or imagine.
But how can we talk about lifting women up without a serious discussion of, no less without more than the merest passing reference to, who and what has been keeping them down?
The segment focused on women's oppression, but glossed over other complicating factors. For example, Kristof actually purchased two girls from sexual slavery and returned them to their villages. One girl remained in her village and wed - the other went back to the brothels, presumably in search of drugs. Kristof mentioned that this made him understand that "freeing" someone is "more than just opening a door" - but that type of analysis was lacking in the articles and segments that Kristof appeared on. Instead, the focus was on feel-good narratives and painful images of poverty and suffering.
On Oprah's website, she has a registry sub-site set up to help.
The various ways to assist (financial and awareness-based) are helpful, but is human intervention enough in the face of structural and societal problems of this magnitude?
Related: Half The Sky Movement [Official Site]
The Women's Crusade [NY Times]
Here's Your Big Chance To Ask: What About The Men? [Shakesville]