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Women Need The Global Spotlight, Says Columnist


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we'll hear how a former male model and amateur boxer with no experience making documentaries wound up making one about the elusive and irascible drummer of the legendary rock band Cream. That's in just a few minutes.

But first, we want to make note of the 101st International Women's Day. That's today and it is a day that started out as a celebration of women in the socialist movement, morphed into something like Valentine's Day in some countries, but now has evolved into a global event to recognize activism and achievement among women.

The day is also meant to draw attention to the unique hardships women and girls face around the world, so we decided to call upon a writer who has earned a reputation for bringing the stories of women's struggles into the public consciousness.

Pulitzer Prize-winner Nicholas Kristof is a columnist for the New York Times and the co-author of "Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide." He wrote the book with his wife and frequent collaborator, Sheryl Wudunn, and he is with us from his office in New York.

Nick, thanks so much for joining us.

NICHOLAS KRISTOF: Hi, Michel. Happy International Women's Day.

MARTIN: Well, thank you. As briefly as you can - I just wanted to ask if you would tell again the story of how you came to see the treatment of women and girls as a human rights issue, because I'm thinking a lot of people would say that in countries where women are having a hard time or a terrible time, men probably are too. And you've written that it started with your coverage of Tiananmen Square. Could you talk about that a little bit?

KRISTOF: That's right. Back in 1989, Sheryl and I were covering Tiananmen and this was the huge news story of, you know, of that period, and we don't really know, but probably a few hundred people were killed at Tiananmen. Maybe several thousand injured. And you could not write a story at that time that was not on the front page.

And then right at around the same point, we began to see figures about the number of girls in China who were, in a sense, being discriminated against to death because they weren't provided the same access to food and health care as boys were. And the upshot of that was that there were tens of millions of women in China who were missing, who had been, you know, discriminated against to death.

And then that got - and that never got a single column inch, as far as we knew, in the paper. And then the more we looked, in China, India - really, all around the world - we saw a pattern of discrimination that hugely exceeded what we tend to think of as human rights abuses where, you know, governments dragged dissidents off and tortured them. This was happening on a far broader scale.

MARTIN: And to that end, I want to raise, again, the whole question of culture, that there are some people in the countries that you've written about, and in fact I would argue even in this country, who would argue that the place of women in society is about culture and that people who are not part of that culture don't have a right to impose their point of view about how women should be treated on other cultures and countries.

And I just want to ask - what do you say about that? Because I know you've thought about this quite a bit.

KRISTOF: Yeah. And I think it is true that discrimination often is rooted in culture. I wish that my wife, Sheryl Wudunn, were here to answer that question, because she has a - you know, she talks about how her - she's Chinese-American and her grandmother had her feet bound and that was an important part of Chinese culture, yet I think we all think - including Chinese, obviously - you know, thank goodness there was a real movement against that. And it involved Chinese, but it also included a push from the outside.

You know, we should be deferential, in general, to decisions that other people make as part of their culture, but some kinds of practices - whether it be foot binding, whether it be female genital mutilation, whether it be not letting girls go to school - truly are beyond the pale and I think do require some kind of an international push.

MARTIN: But you know, recently your writing has also focused on women here in the United States. For example, earlier this month, you wrote that, quote, "legislatures are creating new obstacles to abortions and are treating women in ways that are patronizing and humiliating." And you're talking about bills moving through legislatures - in some cases, have passed - that require women to get ultrasounds, in some cases vaginal ultrasounds, before they are allowed to have an abortion.

And as a person who's covered international stories about rape as a tool of war - I know you just got back from Sudan -sex trafficking and the use of faith to justify physically abusing or even killing women, you have to believe that some of the people who are probably most horrified about female infanticide around the world would argue that these measures, in the U.S. context, are appropriate.

So I wanted to ask how you draw the connection and how you decide when you want to take an issue on like this, which I'm sure is going to be unpopular with many people who read and support you.

KRISTOF: Yeah. I mean I must say I find it incredibly dispiriting to be - after having written about women's rights in Yemen or Afghanistan - to be writing about these issues right here at home. And obviously on these issues, like this Texas law requiring transvaginal ultrasounds before an abortion, then one's view is going to depend very heavily on one's perspective on abortion rights themselves. I don't think I'm going to persuade people who take a different view.

But I do think that certainly it troubles me, coming from my perspective, and it's not just abortion rights issues, it's also things like contraceptive access, and that to me was - the debate about mandating contraceptive access as part of insurance policies, I found, again, just incredibly dispiriting. And the Rush Limbaugh comments.

I wonder sometimes if there isn't - as women and girls have become incredibly successful in this country, especially in education, if there isn't something of a backlash, perhaps particularly at a time of a recession, when many men have found themselves out of work, I wonder if there isn't something of a backlash that we may be seeing.

MARTIN: Well, finally, in the minute that we have left, how do you continue to write about these issues in a way that gets people to see - truly see people, to see these issues in a new light, as you would wish them to do instead of just saying, OK, well, that's just the way things are.

KRISTOF: You know, I don't think that readers or listeners, by and large, care about millions of girls, for example, sold into brothels and locked up there. I think they can be made to care about one. And so what I found works is to tell the story of one individual and then, from there, then broaden the conversation to the larger context.

But I don't think it's true that we tune these problems out. I think we can be made to care. I just think it takes some work.

MARTIN: Nicholas Kristof is a Pulitzer Prize winner and a columnist for the New York Times. He's the coauthor with his wife, Sheryl Wudunn, of "Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide." We reached him in his office in New York.

Nick, thank you.

KRISTOF: Sure. Thank you. You hold up way more than half the sky, Michel.

MARTIN: Oh, thank you for that. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.