American women may “go totally crazy” with Shania Twain and sing, “Man! I Feel Like a Woman,” celebrating female prerogative and pleasure, but the majority of women in the world may consider their gender a chromosomal curse.
Veteran political journalist, Nicholas Kristof, and his journalist wife, Sheryl WuDunn, were living in China and reporting for the New York Times on events surrounding the revolution of 1989, when they discovered disturbing facts that had not emerged in the media. China’s preference for boys was resulting in the disappearance of 39,000 girls every year.
As their radar adjusted to this cultural skeleton in the closet, they also learned of a practice that equally disgraced Chinese culture, although they would later learn that this practice proliferates all over the world. Each year, tens of thousands of young girls and women are abducted and sold for various purposes.
While investigating this exploitation, more abuses, hideous and vile, spewed out of the darkness of gender oppression. Kristof and WuDunn concluded that the greatest factor contributing to human rights violations was not one’s political position, but one’s genetic composition. Men are violating women in shocking and shameful ways, protected by perverse cultural norms.
Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, germinated and sprouted in book form in 2009, which became an international best-seller. It further blossomed into a documentary film, which aired on PBS last week. The 4-hour special tells the stories of women living in six countries where women suffer oppression.
The film exposes the accepted practice of child prostitution in India, the habitual rape of women, some as young as five, that goes unprosecuted in Sierra Leone, the custom of genital mutilation of young girls in Somaliland, leading to high rates of maternal mortality in child birth, the sex-trafficking of young girls in Cambodia, the exclusion of females from education in Vietnam, and the economic oppression of women in Kenya.
All of these practices are growing in the underbelly of other countries in the world, usually protected by cultural standards or beliefs. So as not to appear as a Western imperialist, Kristof turned the camera lens on organizations incubated in their own societies, which are bringing attention to the injustices and change to the cultures.
“There are values that are oppressive to women that are embedded in a culture, sometimes in a religion, and I don’t think one can ignore that fact,” he said. “And it’s also true that sometimes one can go in and end up causing more harm than good in the process of trying to bring about change. What we’ve tried to do is focus on organizations that are on the ground,” at the grass-roots level, and try to “amplify their voices,” he said.
After reading the book or viewing the documentary, expect to feel a deep moral indignation and revulsion over the treatment of women. Like other issues, one may also feel powerless to help, especially since these problems exist “over there.” The book includes a chapter on “What You Can Do” and a little research on the internet can produce dozens of possible contributions to lasting solutions.
Americans are not exempt from gender oppression in milder forms. After all, we justified the brutal oppression of a single race for nearly a century, while the aftershocks of slavery still infect our society in various forms of racism today. We need to look more carefully at the subtle forms of sexism poisoning our culture. A simple bias towards males in the workplace, the classroom, the home or the church qualifies as gender inequity. Oppression may crop up as jokes, disrespectful comments or prejudicial treatment, but it originates with an attitude of superiority.
Christians should be leading the charge for gender equality, because Jesus advocated for women unlike any reformer before or since. Although he selected twelve men as his apostles, many women traveled with him as well. In a society where only men were trained as rabbis, Jesus allowed women to “sit at his feet,” a description reserved for men who studied under a rabbi.
Jesus grew up in a specific historic culture deeply informed by the religion of that culture. Yet Jesus did not see what others saw. When his apostles saw only the generous offerings of the wealthy in the temple, Jesus saw an “invisible” widow giving a few pennies, all that she had, in an act of unprecedented faith.
When dinner guests saw only a shameless prostitute, Jesus saw a broken woman, desperate for love and acceptance. When the spiritual leaders saw only an adulterous, convicted by the law, Jesus saw another fallen creature of God in need of forgiveness and restoration.
Jesus gave hope to a Samaritan woman cast out by her community and five previous husbands. He delivered the daughter of a Caananite woman from a demon, a woman rejected by the strict exclusivism of contemporary Judaism. He disregarded the prejudice of a patriarchal society and spoke with women in public, touched women with healing and compassion, and taught women as men’s equals.
America may be a long way from the detestable practices of other countries, but this does not imply full equality of respect and dignity between men and women in American culture. The Church may surpass every other religion in its view of women, but this does not guarantee that Christians do not oppress, repress or depress women in subtle forms of prejudice that are not characteristic of Jesus.
“Half the sky’ comes from a Chinese aphorism, indicating that women hold up half the sky. Christian theology extends even greater honor to women in our understanding of creation and redemption.
God created woman in the same image that he created man, and the Son of God died for women in the same way he died for men, making no distinction in their glory, their dignity or their worth.
We can reflect that sense of dignity and worth by extending compassion to oppressed women and by working to relieve women of reprehensible injustices. It is yet another way that we bring the kingdom of God into reality in our generation.