I know it’s more than a week ago—old news—that Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (authors of Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, to be released next week by Knopf) wrote an epic cover story in The New York Times Magazine about women’s rights around the world (or lack thereof). But I’ve been busy preparing for my new job and making tomato sauce and running after a 3-year-old (or, actually, shouting for her as I lie on the couch!). Finally, though, I had a quiet moment to read it.
Unfortunately, most of it I knew already: the parts about how millions and millions of baby girls die around the world simply because parents don’t want them and they have no value; how only 1 percent of the land in the world is owned by women, and that most women, when widowed, are turned out to fend for themselves; about the easily curable (but hardly ever treated), ostracizing, fistula that happens when 12-year-old girls have babies and the birth canal tears; about the millions of little girls sold into sexual slavery; how women are burned to death when they are no longer wanted or desired. Lack of education is a given. And most of it is legal—even condoned.
My daughter Maya and I explored all these issues in our book It’s My Pleasure (Simon & Schuster) many years ago. We turned our horror at the stories we kept hearing into a detective mission to discover why. Why do cultures allow total brutality towards women? Why do women put up with it (and often perpetuate it themselves)? And how do we stop it?
You may laugh when you hear we traced it back to fear of love (policed by patriarchal male domination), which lives on today in the stigma against happily-ever-after romance stories (a stigma, by the way, of which The New York Times is a major perpetuator). But a few years after we published our book, I was honored to hear Ayaan Hirsi Ali, author of Infidel, speak to women executives in America. Here is a Somali woman who lived through unspeakable brutality—beatings, starvation, genital mutilation, forced marriage—to become a member of parliament in the Netherlands…until she denounced Islam then had to go into hiding after a friend of hers was murdered. The murderer left a note for her, stabbed into the victim’s body with a knife.
What gave Ali her courage? What gave her the insight into a life of different possibilities? It was smuggled romance novels by Danielle Steele and others. In those pages, she saw that women in other countries were worthy of love and had the freedom to pursue it…that women deserve love, and the she deserved men who knew how to give her pleasure—even though her genitalia had been destroyed. Those stories gave her the strength and gumption to escape and devote her life to helping other women.
It’s a very simple but radical idea. And while “big men” in the U.S. and Europe rush to “help” Africa and Asia with “better seeds,” chemicals, and aid that is given to men who drink it away and then sell their adolescent daughters into loveless marriages, they are actually perpetuating the male domination that is at the root of the problem.
When Hollywood finally learns how to make good romance movies (not even a category today!) we might just finally free women around the world, and create the kind of world where peace is a possibility. In the meantime, there are cheap paperback romances and micro-loans to women. In the meantime, love your daughters with all your heart and never take our freedom for granted. It was won in a long, hard-fought battle—it was never a given, and still isn’t. And remember, we free women are the minority.