Sleepers, Awake!

Last month the Skirball opened Women Hold Up Half the Sky, inspired by the book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide (Knopf, 2009), by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.

The idea for the exhibition started with this issue of The New York Times Magazine:

Women Hold Up Half the Sky

My well-worn copy of The New York Times Magazine, “Saving the World’s Women” special issue, August 23, 2009, pictured here inside the gallery. Photo by Thomas Schirtz.

Both the cover photograph and the caption arrested my attention: a portrait of a woman named Goretti Nyabenda of Burundi, who “transformed her life with a $2 microloan.”

Two dollars? That tiny amount can transform a life? Now I read the headline: “Why Women’s Rights Are the Cause of Our Time.” That stopped me, too. Despite a dim awareness that the abuse and neglect of women are still prevalent in many parts of the world, I wasn’t in the habit of thinking that could change. For as little as $2?  Hmmm.

Nicholas D. Kristof spoke at the Skirball on October 25 to inaugurate the exhibition. “When you have sixty million women and girls discriminated against to death,” he argued, “that’s not just a women’s issue. It is the global human rights issue.” Photo by Steve Cohn.

Inside was an article by Kristof and WuDunn with another bold statement: that the moral challenge of the twenty-first century is to end the brutality inflicted on so many girls and women, and that “changing that could change everything.” Poverty, famine, maternal and child mortality, terrorism… all implicated in the treatment of women and girls around the world. “Women are not the problem; they’re the solution,” asserted the authors. I wasn’t in the habit of thinking that way either.

I thought of my own daughters: proud, independent women who grew up knowing their future was an open horizon. Each freely chose her own path, without fear for her safety or her life, without question of her inherent right to become the person she could.

The magazine made me wonder how many women and girls around the world today are denied their hopes and dreams, denied their most basic human rights, denied all but a desperate day-to-day existence. It seemed incongruous to me that my own daughters should have so much opportunity while so many other daughters have so little.

The argument laid out by Nick and Sheryl made me think of the Jewish ritual of the shofar (ram’s horn), which is sounded at the New Year to summon the Jewish community to repentance. A rabbi and philosopher named Maimonides (1135–1204) once compared the shofar blast to an alarm clock, crying out: “Sleepers, awake! Awaken from the slumber that absorbs you in your own welfare, that puts your conscience to sleep. Awaken to the cause of justice, to the plight of those less fortunate than you and stand in need of your help.”

Our hope at the Skirball is that Women Hold Up Half the Sky will serve as a kind of shofar, activating the public conscience. As Sheryl and Nick point out, women and girls like Goretti Nyabenda are the ones who are leading the way, rising above conditions of privation and peril to improve their own lives as well as their communities. By calling attention to their stories of hope and offering ways to effect change, the exhibition follows in their footsteps.

As little as $2 can make an enormous difference. Imagine what a whole community can do. Come to the Skirball and help us hold up half the sky.

The exhibition was developed with the support of Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, whom I contacted through their literary agency. Both authors gave their assent and encouragement to the creation of the Skirball exhibition. Gallery view by Steve Cohn.

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