Since he began writing a column for the New York Times eight years ago, Nicholas D. Kristof has become the closest thing we have to a voice of conscience on human rights abuses around the world.
His latest book, co-written with his wife Sheryl WuDunn, is the well-received Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.
Kristof was in town recently to speak at a fundraiser for Day One, a Providence organization that provides counseling and advocacy for victims of sexual abuse. The Phoenix sat down with him afterward for a Q&A. His answers are edited and condensed for length.
YOU ARGUE IN HALF THE SKY THAT THE GLOBAL FIGHT FOR WOMEN'S EQUALITY IS THE "PARAMOUNT MORAL CHALLENGE" OF OUR ERA. WHY IS THIS SO? There are a lot of bad things that happen around the world. But one measure of oppression of women is that about 100 million women have been discriminated against to death. There are actually more males than females in the world today and that's because, although women live longer and there are more women in the U.S. and Europe, in much of the world they're starved, not treated when they get sick. And, so, more women have died as a consequence of that kind of discrimination than were killed in all the wars of the 20th century. It just feels like a vast problem. And even the slavery side of it — the sexual slavery side of it — is probably substantially bigger than early 19th-century slavery was. So, just put it all together and it just feels like the central moral challenge for us all.
THE BOOK ALSO SUGGESTS THAT ACHIEVING GENDER EQUALITY IN THE DEVELOPING WORLD IS NOT MERELY A MATTER OF JUSTICE BUT OF UNLEASHING NATIONS' POTENTIAL FOR ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT. CAN THAT ARGUMENT BE PERSUASIVE IN DEEPLY SEXIST CULTURES? I think the argument that women are a huge opportunity actually gets more traction in sexist countries than the rights-based argument. Poor countries want to grow faster economically. They're looking for any kind of resource they can exploit. And if one can show them that China is booming, partly because it figured out how to use the female half of the population, then that's an argument that really has resonance for them.
HAVE YOU SEEN EVIDENCE OF THAT SINKING IN? Even in Afghanistan, which is as about as oppressive a place as there is, there are a growing number of people who really do appreciate that girls' education is a good thing. They're nervous about it — they want girls only to be taught by women, they are careful about what they think should be taught to girls — but, at the end of the day, they think that it is important for their daughters to be taught. You do see progress, you really do.
THERE IS A CHAPTER IN YOUR BOOK TITLED "IS ISLAM MISOGYNISTIC?" WHAT DO YOU CONCLUDE? Islam started out as an advance for women. Women benefitted when Islam came to a particular area. But conservative schools within Islam haven't evolved over the last 1200 years. So these days, in more fundamentalist Muslim countries, women are at a real disadvantage and it is Koranic arguments that are used to suppress them. I tend to think that Prophet Muhammad would be horrified if he were to see what was being done in the name of Islam.