Sunday, September 27, 2009

My Half Inch of the Sky

by Zinta Aistars

There are times that you just have to steal the time. I have no business sitting on my couch, candle lit, hour after hour and long into the night, reading ... but that is just what I have been doing this weekend. In between doing a thousand other things, of course. Not the least of which is a tantalizing rush assignment that came to me on Friday for Kalamazoo College, my favorite Vitamin K, that I must, must, must finish before this day has evaporated. I've calculated that it will require approximately 11 hours to finish, and the day is already wearing toward noon.

But there's this book. It is Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. It didn't take much to catch my attention, because I have been a longtime fan (and I am the fan of nearly nothing and even fewer persons, being by my age and my life stage too difficult to impress) of Pulitzer-Prize winning (twice) journalist Nicholas Kristof. I was introduced to Kristof some years ago, when he wrote an alarming series in New York Times, where he is a columnist, about sex trafficking in the United States. Where? Here? Yes, right here, in our own cities and neighborhoods, in astounding numbers, very young girls and women being kidnapped, usually as runaways, but sometimes quite simply off the streets, your streets, as they walked to school in their (our) nice, clean neighborhoods, and forced to become prostitutes and/or take part in the burgeoning industry of pornography. For which, mind you, the United States has one of the world's most ravenous appetites.

I read Kristof's revealing, horrifying series in NYT at the same time that I was enmeshed in a relationship with a man that I was coming to realize was addicted to pornography, claiming it was all "just harmless fun," but fast escalating into affairs, a life of constant coverup and lies that threatened to bury me alive. Kristof's columns made me feel sane again. This was not "just harmless fun." This was the result of, and supported by, human trafficking for the most base of purposes. This was the destruction of human lives, not by death, arguably a kinder blow, but by the agony of humiliation and violation of treating a human being as body without spirit, body without heart, body without emotion, a slow death from the inside out. I could say that Kristof helped me un-mesh myself from that slow dying from the inside out from such a relationship. Pornography, and its eventual acting out in "real life,"  is not "just harmless fun." It destroys many, many lives.

This is not, however, the focus of this book. Not directly. Half the Sky is about human trafficking and sex slavery, oppression of women worldwide, usually based on the mere fact of their gender. It is also about how treating women better can, and often does, result in solutions to worldwide poverty - and many other ills. It is a fascinating connection made between how treating women, and girls, as sex slaves as well as weapons of war (the rapes currently taking place in the Congo are an example of this), can lead to the sinking of an entire nation, country, culture. The domino effect reaches us all.

But I don't mean to write a book review here. I maintain another blog, Zinta Reviews, for posting book reviews. I've not yet finished the book, although I am fast closing in on the final 50 pages. What I meant to write about this morning ... was about how living through hard times in our own lives can lead us to good things. Because that was one of the hardest times of my life, those years when I came across Kristof's columns in New York Times. There is much to be said about realizing that one is not alone in a harsh experience. There is much to be said about being validated by reading that there is factual basis to my expanding realization that there is something deeply wrong in an experience, even while society at large seems to continue to condone it. I knew my partner's addiction was not "just harmless fun." I also knew it had little, if anything, to do with sex. It was more about the empty places and carefully hidden shadows inside of him, based on his own fears and the need to have control and power over women, a control and power he lacked in reality. While his behavior was escalating out of control and pulling more people into its destructive vortex of abuse, using others as objects with no regard for the aftermath, I was finally finding solid ground beneath my feet. Solid enough to scamper to higher ground. And finally find the courage to leave. I had a new understanding of the emotionally battered women's syndrome. The novel I am currently writing deals with many of these issues as I experienced them in my own life.

That is what good writing can do. That is what well-written books can accomplish. That is what one man, fighting for the rights of women, a true feminist, can do for the whole of humanity. That is what a good newspaper column can bring about in its readers.

It takes a great deal to make this reader cry while turning pages. I am not easy to impress. But Kristof and his wife (with whose work I hope to soon acquaint myself as well), Sheryl WuDunn, understand that citing statistics does little to bring about change. The stories of individual people do. Half the Sky is a collection of such individual stories - of women, of girls, of children, who have lived through (and in some cases, have not survived) the most unspeakable torture and abuse ... and gone on to change their part of the world. Many of these women have rebelled against their treatment, refused to be silent, risen against mobs of angry men, corrupt leaders, authorities and politicians, even entire governments, who would not take them seriously. They have risen up against other women, for many of their most cruel abusers are women who were previously abused themselves, and accomplished great things and saved many others from a similar fate. They have built schools, built hospitals, built shelters, changed laws... changed age-old tradition and cultures. In short, moved mountains.

And I thought I had a bad day? Welll, yes, I did. Far too many bad days. I will not detract from my own experience, because that is what keeps a woman down. But to read the stories of these women moves me to look to my own life for how I, too, might use my life experiences to reach out and make a difference. How the dark can lead to more places of light. I am excited to see the list of well-tested charities and organizations at the end of this book. There is a list of things I can do. That anyone can do. Beginning with just a thought. Starting with just one small action.

Perhaps, then, this blog can be that one small action on my part on this day. Read the book. Just read it. I dare you to remain unchanged. Every change begins with raising awareness.

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