New York Times Magazine Issue on Women an Insult
On Sunday I got to read the much-anticipated New York Times Magazine issue dedicated to women of the developing world.
Before I comment on “The Women’s Crusade,” the lead story by Nicholas D. Kristof and his wife Sheryl WuDunn, 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 Pulitzer Prize in journalism for their coverage of China’s Tiananmen Square. In his career, Kristof has gone where few of us 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 [American] 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 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 story, Kristof and WuDunn exhibit a trait--condescension--we 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.
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 the 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 in 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, of 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. Had Kristof and WuDunn sought the knowledge of, say, a professor from the University of Karachi, he might have told the authors that Saima’s husband is a “deadbeat” because U.S. aid to Pakistan seldom reaches men like him. An African expert might have told Kristof and WuDunn that the continent is full of men who care deeply about the education of the girl child and women’s rights in general.
Men in the developing world do not deny that 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 seen men spend on alcohol while their children languish in poverty.
But we have also seen men who have protected their mothers and educated their sisters and daughters. To place such men with rapists, misogynists and wife beaters is not only outright offensive, but also counterproductive.