The NYT Issue on Women: An African Man’s Perspective


The recent publication of a series of articles in the New York Times magazine
focused on women and development, at a time when several books on the
subject have also been published, has sparked debate in the women’s
rights community internationally and domestically.  These debates come
at a time when US Foreign Aid programs are under review and during the
15th anniversary of the International Conference on Population and
Development.  In the coming weeks, RH Reality Check will feature commentary on these issues from a diverse set of voices in the US and abroad. 
A series, compiling all of the responses published on RH Reality Check, will be published on Friday, September 11th.

Edwin Okong’o is a
writer and associate editor at New America Media.

On Aug. 23, I got to read the much-anticipated New York
Times Magazine issue dedicated to women of the developing world.

The lead story, “The Women’s Crusade” by Nicholas D. Kristof
and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, set the tone for the issue. And it portrayed an
Africa that I hardly recognize. It also calls for a response.

Before I critique what they wrote, let me make one thing
clear: I have deep respect for the couple. In 1990, Kristof and WuDunn became the first couple to ever win a Pulitzer Prize in journalism for their coverage of China’s Tiananmen Square. In his career, Kristof has gone where few
journalists would dare go. His continuous commentary from Darfur exposed the
Sudanese government’s atrocities against civilians and earned him another
Pulitzer in 2006.

Kristof’s travel resume is unrivaled. According to his bio
on the NYT’s Web site, he “has lived on four continents, reported on six, and
traveled to more than 140 countries, plus all 50 [U.S.] states, every Chinese
province and every main Japanese island.”

But reading “The Women’s Crusade” made me feel like I was
reading a tale from the 19th Century. The authors declare correctly that this
century should be about tackling “the brutality inflicted on so many women and
girls around the globe: sex trafficking, acid attacks, bride burnings and mass
rape.” However, the story portrays the developing world as a backward frontier
full of rapists, wife beaters, sex traffickers and “bride burners.” If I hadn’t
grown up in Kenya, one of the places Kristof and WuDunn wrote about, it would
have been hard for me to imagine the existence of even a single good man in the
developing world.

The men of Ivory Coast spend their "money on alcohol
and tobacco.” Pakistanis abandon wives who don’t bear sons. Indians burn brides
to “punish a woman for an inadequate dowry.” Chinese men kidnap women and
condemn them to sexual slavery in brothels. And all the poor people of the
developing world have one thing in common: They spend heavily on a “combination
of alcohol, prostitution, candy, sugary drinks and lavish feasts” instead of
spending on the education of their children. (That can be said about a lot of
places in the United States, but I’ll leave that for another day).

In the article, Kristof and WuDunn exhibit the kind of
condescension we Africans often see in Western journalists, even those who have
spent so many years abroad. I believe that most of them mean well and sincerely
want to see an end to the atrocities they expose. But their overwhelming focus
on the developing world’s hot enclaves undermines their goodwill and skews
their reporting.

Placing a blanket misogynist label on men from the Third
World, for example, damages Kristof’s and WuDunn’s credibility by making people
in the developing world ask whether the journalists really understand the
places they cover. (When I asked a Kenyan man last year to give me an example
of a foreign journalist who had gotten a story wrong, he said, “Nicholas
Kristof of the New York Times.” The man said he believed Kristof had been
malicious, not negligent.)

This distrust is further aggravated by Western journalist’s
reluctance to seek the expertise of local people. A common complaint of people
of the developing world is that they only appear in Western stories as subjects
– either as poor, hopeless victims, or as savage creatures in need of the
West’s moral intervention. They are never considered vital ingredients of the
problem-solving recipe.

Kristof and WuDunn, for instance, almost exclusively tap
experts from the West: Michael Kremer and Erica Field of Harvard; Esther Duflo
of M.I.T.; William Easterly, New York University; Dr. Lewis Wall, the Worldwide
Fistula Fund; Michael Horowitz, conservative agitator on humanitarian issues;
the activist Jo Luck, Heifer Foundation; Larry Summers, Bill Gates, the World
Bank, the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff.

We, the people of the developing world, complain about
unfair and inaccurate reporting by Western journalists because we know how
differently stories might have turned if they had consulted the experts among
us. An African expert might have told Kristof and WuDunn that the continent is
full of men who care deeply about the education of girls and women’s rights in
general.

Men in the developing world do not deny there exist serious
violations of women’s rights. Many of us have seen injustices committed against
our mothers, sisters and other women we love. We have lived with men who spend
lavishly while their children languish in poverty.

But we also know men who protect their mothers and educate
their sisters and daughters. To pile such men with rapists, misogynists and
wife beaters is outright offensive and counterproductive.

Just like the movements to end slavery and segregation in
the American South couldn’t have been successful without white people, the
fight for women’s rights will not be won without enlisting men from the
cultures where abusing women is rampant.

Kristof and WuDunn highlight that “foreign aid is
increasingly directed to women.” While this is cause for celebration, the
authors ignore the fact that aid doesn’t often get to the poor men. We can
spend 10 times the billions of dollars the authors proposed to empower all the
women of the world, but those efforts will be in vain if we do not empower men.
Perhaps the strongest argument for the empowerment of men is the fact that even
in the developed world men who are in debt, unemployed and unable to provide
for their families often turn their shame into violence against their wives and
children.

Educating men is also just as important as “the women’s
crusade.”  While it is true that in
the developing world men dominate educational institutions and workplaces, they
lack education on the important role women can play in creating a prosperous
society. More resources need to be invested in teaching boys and young men to
break the cycle of violence against women.

One thing I have found more effective is encouraging young
men to think about their mothers and sisters. You should see their faces when I
ask them how they would feel if someone abused their little sister, or if the
woman being abused by her in-laws was their mother.

Three years ago, a young man my sister had been dating came
to tell me that he intended to marry her. Normally he would have gone to my
father but since the old man had passed away, I assumed the role of father to
my siblings. To an outsider, the customary act of my sister’s husband-to-be
seeking my approval might seem misogynistic. But I had told my sister that –
like most women of my 2-million-strong Gusii tribe – she did not need any man’s
permission to marry a man she loves.

I also told her future husband that I did not want a dowry
for my sister. All I asked was that he be kind, loving and respectful to her. I
added that our family would not be ashamed to have my sister come home if she
were abused.

I know a lot of African men who share my views. For example,
at a recent convention of Kenyan Americans held in Boston, the issue of women’s
education and rights was at center stage. I have gone to convention after
convention of Africans in the United States, both as a journalist and a
participant. In every one of them issues of empowering women have been
discussed. And in every one of them, I rarely see an American journalist.

Kristof, WuDunn and many Western journalists have done women
great service by bringing attention to the important issue of women’s rights.
But the absence of Western journalists from the conversations around this issue
makes them rush to condemning every man from the developing world as an
oppressor of women.

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  • suzanahraffield

    Your article is excellent and appreciated. I too am a fan of Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. That is probably why my disappointment in their recent work is fierce.

    Thank you for validating my concerns and speaking truth,
    Suzanah R.
    http://sparkflyconnect.blogspot.com/2009/08/call-for-conversation.html

  • aspen-baker

    Really glad to see this here.  Thanks Edwin.  And thanks SuzannahRaffield, above.  I checked out your blog and it was really cool too. 

  • hmprescott

    This is a great piece. I had the same thoughts as I read Kristof and WuDunn’s piece. It reinforces Westerners’ misperceptions of Africa as “other.” In some ways it reminded me of missionary literature from the 19th century.

    Heather Munro Prescott, Ph.D.
    Professor of History
    Central Connecticut State University
    1615 Stanley Street
    New Britain, CT 06050-4010
    prescott@ccsu.edu
    http://hmprescott.wordpress.com

  • monica-harrington

    I hope that everyone who reads this blog post and is energized about this issue will read Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s new book Half the Sky in its entirety. It is an amazing work and makes the very forceful point that all of us have a role to play in doing whatever we can to help elevate the role of women in the developing world. In essence, the authors’ key point is that Lifting Women Lifts the World.

     

    No one – least of all Nick or Sheryl –would disagree with Mr. Okong’o’s assertion that there are many men in Kenya and throughout the developing world who are strong supporters of women. The authors make the powerful case that there’s much more work to be done. There are many examples of how women are victimized – but there are also powerful and inspiring stories of positive change. Some of the best affirmative examples, well documented by the authors, come from Africa. How many people – and especially people in the Western world – know that Rwanda in 2008 became the first government in history to elect a legislature in which the majority of members are women? Rwanda’s example of forgiveness and inclusiveness is one that we all can learn from.

     

    Men and women both should be valued and respected. It’s not about drawing battle lines between the sexes or between journalists from the developing world and those from rich nations. It’s about how all of us who care about the global community can join the movement to empower women of the developing world in order to support a virtuous cycle where all members of society are respected and valued and can contribute back to their families and to broader society.

  • jo

    I ***LONG*** for the day when men can drop their defenses and join women in fighting for equality – by making up for lost time where we ignored women’s education, economic participation, representation.

    7 out of 10 times when I discuss women’s rights with men, a defensive barrier comes up. Defensiveness does act like a barrier – it blocks information. Open mindedness, empathy,knowledge of the facts, etc. will set us free. I so tire of reading or hearing about "ignoring men" or "painting all men as violent." When we talk about child abuse, nobody thinks all adults are violent. Same when we talk about animal abuse or elder abuse, or you name it. But as soon as we talk about the abuse of females, a defense mechanism (protecting the status of males) comes up. NOBODY is talking about all men, or all men in the developing world. I tire of the constant political correctness of saying ‘not all men’ or ‘most men aren’t violent’ etc. – a political correctness, that when I use, I get called derogatory names.

    I did not see where the authors painted all men from the developing world as misogynists – I saw authors who told the public (b/c we so rarely have a voice in the mainstream media) that, look, we have a problem in the world. I too was upset they didn’t include the problems facing American women – 3 die a day from domestic violence,sexual assault, being targeted in homicides & serial killings, misogyny in media, etc. I cannot fathom that readers saw all men as misogynist. Readers are smarter than that. Please…drop the defensiveness and keep an open mind. We know men have helped women gain rights – we didn’t have the public sphere to fight for those rights while men did – and we appreciate it.

    I have lived overseas. I have seen men (not all men) spending household money on alcohol, gambling and prostitutes. It exists. Let’s focus on women for a change. Let’s give them a chance. Let’s lift them and their families out of poverty. WE know that they will then help their families (including men) and communities. It’s impossible to help women and not indirectly help men. Impossible. It will happen…on it’s own.

    I call for humbleness, openness and change. Give women a chance.

  • edwin-okongo

    Dear Monica,

    Your comment seems more like a summary of the points I make above than a rebuttal. Example: "Men and women both should be valued and respected."

     

    Also remember that this response was about the excerpt from "Half the Sky" that appeared in the NYT Magazine. I haven’t read the book — I plan to — but if that’s the best chapter in the book, there is reason to worry.

     

    Again, the fact that violence against women exists in endemic proportions is not news. (Maybe it is to some of Kristof’s readers). What we need to do — in addition to reminding the world about the problem — is to come up with new ideas.  In the process, we should, as you said above, involve "all of us who care about the global community…" I did not see that in "The Women’s
    Crusade."

     

    Also, our criticism of Western journalists is "not about drawing battle lines between the sexes or between journalists from the developing world and those from rich nations." In my criticism, I attack the work, not the author.

     

    All we are asking for is mutual respect. Take for instance the choice of experts in Kristof’s and WuDunn’s article. Can you imagine me writing a story about the United States, citing professors from the University of Nairobi as experts on America? Imagine me filling my narratives exclusively with stories of meth, heroin, crack, homicides, prostitution, alcoholism, domestic violence, tobacco,
    etc. Maybe I should, but, on second thought, I’m afraid they’d come for my throat. 

     

    Western journalists and human rights activists need to swallow their pride and start seeking our knowledge. Yes, living in Nairobi for a couple years helps one understand Kenya better than someone who visits for a few weeks, but nothing rivals the experience of being born and raised in Nairobi. (Plus, those guys often live in plush neighborhoods and only go to the "real Kenya" when they’ve got a story assignment about hunger, AIDS, tribal wars, Ebola outbreaks, wildebeest migration across the Serengeti, and, most recently, pirates).

     

    There are also thousands of foreign-born professors and experts living in America who can explain things much better than, say, an American "conservative agitator on humanitarian issues."

     

    All the best,

    Okong’o

  • edwin-okongo

    Jo,

    You missed the point. Here it is again: You can "empower" all the women of the developing world, but it will mean nothing if men don’t change their ways. What happens when men retaliate and steal from empowered women? Do you give women guns to defend themselves? 

     

    Call it being defensive, but you are talking to a man who is very critical of men, both in America and the developing world.

     

    And let’s stop pretending like men of the developing world have been helped and blown away their chances. In case you missed it when you lived abroad, here is what happens to the aid Kristof and WuDunn so passionately advocate for:

     

    1. The check arrives in Kenya, straight into the hands of men — not the "deadbeats," but Big Men.

    2.  Big Men cash the check and send it straight to Swiss banks after buying guns from the West to protect themselves against "deadbeats."

    3. Swiss banks invest the money in America and other Western countries.

    4. "Activists" in the West take the lazy route of blaming the "deadbeat" for failing to feed his family. 

     

    Okong’o 

    Our Man in America

  • monica-harrington

    Hi Okong’o,

    Unfortunately, the fact that women and girls in the developing world are so often victimized is not a subject well understood here in the United States.  For whatever reason, people tend to extrapolate from their own experience and while the U.S. clearly still has room for improvement with respect to gender, we have seen enormous progress in the last few generations.  (A point my 91-year-old mother proudly made often and with colorful detail before she died earlier this year.) 

     

    Also, I think it’s enormously valuable for writers and journalists to travel abroad and write from their own experience.  Tocqueville’s Democracy in America is a wonderful example of how fresh insights often come from people who haven’t grown up in the society being studied/discussed.  Your own observations in any number of areas – including the meth epidemic, prostitution, and alcoholism and how that affects people and societies here in the U.S. – might prove especially interesting and insightful because you did not grow up here.

     

    I suspect that you and the authors would find much in common.  I think the overarching issue is whether people are encouraged to join in a cause that should unite us or whether we fracture over which tactical approaches are likely to work best in any given situation. 

     

    Best to you as well,

     

    Monica

  • edwin-okongo

    Monica,

    Although I was born and lived in Kenya for 20 years, I have spent most of my adult life — nearly 15 years — in America, lived in two states and traveled to more than 30 others. That’s why I’m able to see the contradictions of America.

     

    And that’s why I know about the American reader’s way of thinking. I know people who were born in San Jose, CA, went to school in Berkeley, and work in San Francisco.There is no difference, in the way of thinking, between that Bay Area American and a person who never left my little village in rural southwestern Kenya, for they both think their way is the best. And both of them can be easily manipulated by those of us who get paid to play with words.

     

    Regarding U.S. advances in human/women’s rights, I don’t think it is fair to compare a country that is almost 250 years old with one that is less than 50 years old, as are most African countries. Fifty years after independence the U.S. Civil War hadn’t even happened, slaves weren’t free, and women couldn’t vote.

     

    I bring this up not argue that Africa should wait 200 years to make advances in democracy and human rights, but to say that it is impractical to expect a continent that has been brutalized for centuries to reach where America is in just 50 years.

     

    Again, I acknowledge that there are serious problems in Africa. But having lived there for 20 years and kept contact even while abroad, I can tell you the my people are more intelligent and are doing greater things that they often get credit for in the media.

     

    Sorry I get really riled up sometimes when we get treated only at subjects unble to speak for themselves and tell their own stories.

     

    Thanks for a great discussion.

    Regards,

    Okong’o

     

  • jo

    I don’t appreciate having my comment labeled "emotional" – Comments stemming from emotion or intellect are valid, yet this label is often derogatory and often aimed at women. 

    I did not miss the point. I am for empowering women and I know very well that the cultural attitudes need to change, too. I am all for including men in this movement but I do not belive in defensive stances. I think it acts as a barrier. Nor do I believe that every statement made about this issue includes "all men" – very tiring.  

    I also know that aid does not end up where it belongs. Nonetheless I have witnessed men drinking, gambling and carousing with household money – no matter where it came from – a job, aid or otherwise.

    Your comments take on the very condescension that you so disapprove of.    

     

  • edwin-okongo

    I’m sorry you took offense, but men get emotional, too, Jo. Emotion on this issue is coming from both men and women, and by that I mean people let the suffering prevent them from looking at facts.

     

    Believe me, you and I agree on the issue of women’s rights. Where we differ is that, like Kristof and WuDunn, you have made this a "crusade" pitting men vs. women, rather than of men and women.

     

    Also, I don’t understand your "defensiveness" charge. Didn’t I state clearly that I have seen, and even lived with abusive men? (You should have met my father). That’s why I said you missed the point.

     

    I’m not shaken by such accusations of condenscention, though, because I often get jabs from the other side. I have written a lot about how violent my father and the men in my upbringing were and have sometimes been labeled a "crybaby." (That is because I’m a very emotional man, by the way. I’m not ashamed to show my emotions. When things go well or bad, I cry).

     

    In my narratives, though, I have written about both the good and the bad in those men. But that is something I couldn’t have achieved without putting my pain and hatred (emotion) aside to seek understanding.

     

    With you in this struggle,

    Okong’o

     

    P.S: I still haven’t heard anyone explain to me why all the experts in
    the NYT article are from the West. (Nobel laureates do not
    count).

     

     

  • crowepps

    P.S: I still haven’t heard anyone explain to me why all the experts in
    the NYT article are from the West. (Nobel laureates do not
    count).

     

    Do you think it might be related to your own statement?

    Regarding U.S. advances in human/women’s rights, I don’t think it is fair to compare a country that is almost 250 years old with one that is less than 50 years old, as are most African countries. Fifty years after independence the U.S. Civil War hadn’t even happened, slaves weren’t free, and women couldn’t vote.  I bring this up not argue that Africa should wait 200 years to make advances in democracy and human rights, but to say that it is impractical to expect a continent that has been brutalized for centuries to reach where America is in just 50 years.

    I think, though, that the explanation is a lot simpler — the New York Times is in New York City and sending someone to interview African experts as part of the story would cost money.

     

    My own experience in America is that the opinion held by a person’s coworkers, neighbors and relatives has a great deal to do with what behavior that person considers ‘normal’ and acceptable.  Just as a for-instance, if those persons all take it as a given that of course men should be the ones who earn the family income, then even in cases where that isn’t true, it seems to be taken for granted that men should also make the decisions about how the money is spent.  There are also what can only be described as differences by ‘class’ in America about what is ‘normal’.

     

    It may just be bias on my part, but I think that both men and women are more likely to conform their behavior to the supposed ‘ideal behaviors’ of male and female roles held by persons of their own sex.  That is, if other men think it’s ‘unmanly’ to cheat on the wife, to visit prostitutes, to spend on liquor instead of feeding the children, men are less likely to do those things.  If other women think it’s ‘unfeminine’ to remain single, remain childless, get an education, etc., women are less likely to do those things.

     

    As someone who is the closest thing to an expert on Africa that any of us here have an opportunity to question, I hope you would be willing to give us your opinion of what the "average person" in Africa thinks about gender roles and ‘normal behavior’.  I would be very interested in your take on it, since as you’ve pointed out, you have personal knowledge.