Tuesday, February 28

Read of the Week: A Thousand Splendid Suns

I'm the kind of reader who meanders slowly through books—sort of “smelling every rose and daisy on the side of the road along the way” type of thing, if that even makes sense. Half the Sky, a book by Sheryl WuDunn and Nick Kristof that I can't recommend highly enough, took me approximately a month to read. I like to absorb every detail, taste each word and phrase individually and suck out every drop of meaning. I highlight, I annotate, I bookmark. Maybe it's because I borrowed Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns from a friend (and therefore couldn't mark it up with my random thoughts and comments) that I devoured it so quickly. But I think the real reason I sped through it in just a few days is that it was simply impossible to put down. Each character was so vivid, so real. I was completely absorbed in their lives—their pasts, their hardships, and their shaky futures.

Many of you may know of Khaled Hosseini's masterpiece The Kite Runner. I have not yet had a chance to read this novel, but from what I understand, if you connected with Hosseini's clear, true, and heart-wrenching writing style in The Kite Runner, you will definitely enjoy A Thousand Splendid Suns as well. A Thousand Splendid Suns takes place in Afghanistan from the mid-1960's to the present day, following the lives of two girls, Mariam and Laila, as they endure war, ethnic strife, loss of loved ones, and abusive marriage. Hosseini shows the political conflicts in Afghanistan—the Soviet invasion, the Taliban take-over, and life after the Taliban—through the eyes of ordinary Afghani women.

The relationships—mother and daughter, father and daughter, husband and wife, young lovers and childhood friends—are what make this novel so incredibly powerful and poignant. Hosseini makes us fall in love with a character, then absolutely hate her, then fall even more deeply in love with her again. He makes us sob at the loss of a loved one, then sob again—with joy—at a beautiful reunion. He takes us on an emotional journey with the characters nearly as tumultuous as the political strife happening around them. The Los Angeles Times said it well: “[He] offers us the sweep of historic upheavals narrated with the intimacy of family and village life . . . What keeps this novel vivid and compelling are Hosseini's eye for the textures of daily life and his ability to portray a full range of emotions, from the smoldering rage of an abused wife to the early flutters of maternal love when a women discovers she is carrying a baby.”

Besides the beautiful intimacy of the story, A Thousand Splendid Suns also imparts important lessons about the status of women, and the status of the developing world in the eyes of first world nations like the U.S. One of the two central characters of the story is Laila, a fair-haired girl born in Kabul, Afghanistan. Laila's father Babi, a university-educated, modern Afghani man, tells his daughter that under the communists, “it's a good time to be a woman in Afghanistan. And you can take advantage of that, Laila. Of course, women's freedom—here, he shook his head ruefully—is also one of the reasons
From Flickr by liber(the poet)
people out there took up arms in the first place. By 'out there' . . . Babi meant the tribal areas, especially the Pashtun regions in the south or in the east near the Pakistani border, where women were rarely seen on the streets and only then in burqa and accompanied by men. He meant those regions where men who lived by ancient tribal laws had rebelled against the communists and their decrees to liberate women, to abolish forced marriage, to raise the minimum marriage age to sixteen for girls. There, men saw it as an insult to their centuries-old tradition, Babi said, to be told by the government—and a godless one at that—that their daughters had to leave home, attend school, and work alongside men.” (Hosseini 121)

This passage struck me as a powerful statement about how changeable a society can be if it loses sight of what is important. Before the Taliban, at least in the wealthier parts of Afghanistan, women were free. Not only that, they were respected, even treated as equals. When the Taliban commenced their reign, everything changed—women were not allowed to leave their homes without a male relative nor even laugh aloud in public, or they would be beaten. I think it has been difficult—or perhaps unimportant—for many ordinary Americans to keep track of all of these changes, all of these details. As one character notes in A Thousand Splendid Suns: “Not that they give a damn in America, mind you. What do they care that Pashtuns and Hazaras and Tajiks and Uzbeks are killing each other? How many Americans can even tell one from the other?” (Hosseini 190)

The seemingly distant world of the Middle East, and Afghanistan in particular, can often seem confusing, overwhelming, and even hopeless. But after reading Hosseini's gripping, heart-wrenching story, it is impossible to ignore the fact that people—men, women, and children just like you and me—are living these horrors every day. I encourage you to read A Thousand Splendid Suns. It may be fiction, but its message is true and will be true for all time: we are all brothers and sisters, and we all deserve happiness, even in impoverished rural towns and faraway deserts.

Saturday, February 11


I have some big news: on February 8, Global Giving announced that my video has raised nearly $30,000 for The Girl Effect! I was absolutely astounded when I heard about this, and as it turns out, another organization was pretty impressed as well. Hope-2o, whose mission is “to eliminate the use of plastic water bottles by giving every individual in the United States a stainless steel water bottle,” contacted me the other day about forming a partnership to raise funds for our causes. Hope-2o makes these awesome stainless steel water bottles to raise money for their own cause and another cause that they feel is important. When they heard about what It Only Takes a Girl is doing in support of The Girl Effect, they were interested.

Small disclaimer: several organizations and individuals have emailed me about supporting my cause, forming partnerships, working together, etc., which I think is incredible. However, what many of them did not realize is that It Only Takes a Girl is not actually a funds-collecting organization—it's just me, one girl. My own mission is to raise awareness, encourage donations, and urge volunteerism in support of girls and women around the world, but in fact I am just one girl.

That being said, I was thrilled at the prospect of creating customized water bottles with the “It Only Takes a Girl” logo on them and selling them to raise money for two causes I support: girls, and reducing the consumption of plastic water bottles. (I'm not sure if you saw my recent post on water bottles, but this is also an important issue to me.)

If you are reading this blog, I assume you are already interested in supporting organizations like The Girl Effect, the Worldwide Fistula Fund, Tostan, Girls Learn International, and others that work for the health and education of girls in the developing world. But now you can invest in girls and another important cause, preserving our health and the environment by eliminating plastic water bottles, at the same time. According to Hope-2o, “for every stainless steel water bottle used, we eliminate the use of approximately 180 plastic water bottles per year therefore reducing the serious environmental and health issues caused by plastic water bottles.” I strongly encourage you to purchase an amazing It Only Takes a Girl stainless steel water bottle and to encourage your friends to get some as well. And if you have time, take a moment to look at all these other amazing organizations that Hope-2o has partnered with.

Thank you for supporting our health, the environment, and girls everywhere.

Monday, February 6

Please, Please Read Half the Sky

I know I have been slacking lately on posting new blog entries. For that, I apologize. I have lots of important and fascinating topics to write about, I just need to find the time!
In the meantime, I would like to make a short post about New York Times journalist Nick Kristof and his wife Sheryl WuDunn's book, Half the Sky. Nick Kristof is an incredible human rights activist and journalist, and he is my personal hero. You can follow him on Facebook here and Twitter here (I know I do!).

I have been reading Half the Sky for a few weeks now (I am a painfully slow reader), and I absolutely devour every page. My friends and family like to poke fun at me sometimes because while I read it, I sometimes take out my highlighter and highlight in my book (I'm a nerd, what can I say). Today I would like to share with you a few of my favorite passages from this masterpiece. Enjoy, and learn something new.

"Many of the stories in this book are wrenching, but keep in mind this central truth: Women aren't the problem but the solution. The plight of girls is no more a tragedy than an opportunity." (xviii)

"Women aged fifteen through forty-four are more likely to be maimed or die from male violence that from cancer, malaria, traffic accidents, and war combined." (61)

"This is not a tidy world of tyrannical men and victimized women, but a messier realm of oppressive social customs adhered to by men and women alike." (69)

"They know that a woman humiliated [by being gang-raped] has no other recourse except suicide...They don't even need to use their weapons. Rape kills her."(70)

"Women came to her with their faces destroyed by acid attacks or with their noses chopped off--a traditional punishment for 'bad' or 'loose' women." (75)

"Of all the things that people do in the name of God, killing a girl because she doesn't bleed on her wedding night is among the most cruel." (81)

"She ended up in obstructed labor, with the baby stuck inside her birth passage. After seven days, Mahabouba fell unconscious, and at that point someone summoned a birth attendant. By then the baby had been wedged there for so long that the tissues between the baby's head and Mahabouba's pelvis had lost circulation and rotted away. When Mahabouba recovered consciousness, she found that the baby was dead and that she had no control over her bladder or bowels. She also couldn't walk or even stand, a consequence of nerve damage that is a frequent by-product of fistula." (94)

(If this description of obstructed labor and obstetric fistula horrified you as much as it did me, please visit The Fistula Foundation website.)

"Right now the amount we Americans spend on maternal health is equivalent to less than one twentieth of 1 percent of the amount we spend on our military." (98)

From Flickr by J McDowell 
"It was considered undesirable to teach a girl to read and write. There were no schools for girls, because if girls are educated then they grow up to talk about genitals." (123)

"Somali superstition holds that burning a baby on the chest will prevent tuberculosis." (128) (THIS is why education is important!)

"Whatever one thinks of abortion, it's tragic that up to 40 percent of all pregnancies globally are unplanned or unwanted--and that almost half of those result in induced abortions." (134)

"AIDS is often a disease of gender inequality." (138)

"Forty women every minute seek unsafe abortions." (148)

"During the Taliban era, if a woman went to market and showed an inch of flesh, she would have been flogged; now, she's raped." (150)

"'You educate a boy, and you're educating and individual,' Greg [Mortenson] says, quoting an African proverb. "You educate a girl, and you're educating an entire village." (161)

"Several studies suggest that when women gain control over spending, less family money is devoted to instant gratification and more for education and starting small businesses." (192)

"If we believe firmly in certain values, such as the equality of all human beings regardless of color or gender, then we should not be afraid to stand up for them; it would not be feckless to defer to slavery, torture, foot-binding, honor killings, or genital cutting just because we believe in respecting other faiths or cultures." (207)

A woman who was subject to the Chinese practice of foot-binding. From Flickr by DrJohnBullas
I didn't start my highlighting until later in the book, so I don't really have many passages from the early chapters on human trafficking and sex slavery. These chapters are perhaps the most horrifying, and I was brought to tears on nearly every page.

If you want to be a good and educated citizen of the world, I strongly recommend that you read Half the Sky. I don't think I am exaggerating when I say it can change your life, or at least your outlook on life.