On Female Vocalists and Healing

I’ve always found great solace in books, probably more so than most people. At times when I’ve felt most lost, alone, and confused, I’ve regained a sense of myself by revisiting those books with which I’ve most identified, a firm reminder of who I am. But when I experienced my first heartbreak – my first real, gut-wrenching, hopeless phase of inconsolable sobbing and impending doom at the thought of being without he who I had come to know so well – no piece of fiction could provide me with even a modicum of comfort. I’ve always been a lover of music, but never more so than when I was despondent and broken-hearted. It was during these times that songs provided companionship to me, more than any written word or kindly offered shoulder could.

Prior to my first heartbreak, female vocalists generally held little lasting appeal for me. It wasn’t that I categorically refused to listen to women singers, but rather that the songs I was most interested in were of a style that doesn’t lend itself to the female voice as well. It was mostly indie rock and alternative for me, but not yet the folksy ballads and substantial pop of artists like Laura Marling or Regina Spektor. I wanted music that moved me through beat and rhythm, rather than vocal beauty and lyric. My limited world experience barely resembles that of adult female artists. Since I didn’t relate to musicians of my sex, I stuck to what I knew – the omnipotent male voice of independent, alternative rock. Maybe it was my youthful immaturity or maybe I just hadn’t yet found the right voice from among the female offerings, but it wasn’t until my first broken heart that I could rightfully place any female artist among my favorites.

In the mournful words and music composed by Feist, Rachael Yamagata, and the like, I learned that my feelings of complete despair, false hope, and futile torment were not as unique as I had heretofore imagined. To most, that would seem all the more reason to lose hope, but not I. In finding their songs about unrequited love, imagining one’s ex-lover everywhere, and indulging oneself with mythical mental reunions, I learned that my heartbreak was not earth-shattering, in fact it was nothing new at all. I needed to hear a female perspective to recognize that successful and content women could emerge from the wreckage of long-term relationships fully intact. No male voice could cure my lonesomeness,  but these distinctive female songs of heartbreaks true and deeply felt allowed the intolerable pain of my experience some meager outlet. I gorged on the music which indulged these emotions without guilt or remorse. Finding these songs was like having arrived upon my own holy grail, a journey on which I never knew I had embarked until I arrived at my destination. These were the people who most fully helped me recover, find my own two feet again, and recognize that my heartbreak was nothing the world hadn’t seen before. The world was only going to continue turning and I had to keep up.

In time I was able to heal without fully relying upon those ladies in which I first found such grand solace. From the consolation within and the truth behind these women’s songs came the strength of solidarity, no matter how intangible and imaginary. Though I never spoke to these women directly, never confided in or personally encountered them, I drank up their empathy like a magic elixir to stimulate the healing process.

Now when I hear those songs, I grow nostalgic for that time of grief, recovery, and healing. It is not a sadistic notion but rather a longing for those formative months when I thought I was lost and broken. As cliche as the point is, out of heartbreaks come the most pure versions of ourselves. After a thorough period of nurturing and cleansing, we are left with an amazingly stunning picture of ourselves, a more clear and focused image with which we can better understand and identify our own nature. The important part is finding a consolation in someone or something, anything that nurtures and heals, and regaining the clarity of mind of finish that healing process for yourself. And I’d like to thank some of the following ladies for that.

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On Half the Sky

When I first started blogging, I was inspired primarily by food blogs and book blogs – spaces where people were sharing their opinions on what they read and ate, offering small glimpses of just one facet of their myriad interests and talents. As I’ve become further immersed in the blog community, I’ve started to find other sources of inspiration – from pure photo blogs to lifestyle blogs, motivational blogs to blogs that document the attainment of very specific goals and everything in between. My taste in blogs has becoming increasingly wide and varied and so too has the subject matter I want to cover.

I feared becoming the kind of blogger who simply documented the mundanities of her daily life, so I initially steered clear of most personal commentary, sticking to the format utilized by the foodies and the readers. But then I realized how much more I had to share and that, though I don’t need to document every moment of my life, there are parts of myself that can’t go unacknowledged on this blog.

So I began to share some essay-style posts on issues of interest to me and in the process, I feel like I’ve given my readers a more complete and accurate idea of who I am and what matters to me. All in all it’s proven an enriching and very positive change.

And as a feminist and a women’s studies major in college, I felt like discussing Half the Sky by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn seemed the perfect opportunity to expand my content even further. This amazing book addresses a multitude of international women’s issues while placing them in the larger scheme of humanitarian crises, profiling successful strategies for change, and offering methods for readers to help.

Kristof and WuDunn are a married couple who worked as New York Times journalists. While covering international pieces throughout their journalistic careers, however, the two noticed widespread gender inequality and cruel injustices towards women worldwide that were getting little to no news coverage whatsoever. They were appalled by the way that gender discrimination manifests itself in other nations, particularly those of the third world. Though the exact numbers are hard to flesh out, every year more than 2 million girls disappear as a result of discrimination based on sex while the number of missing women falls somewhere between 60 and 101 million. This could be a result of parents refusing to access treatment for their sick daughters in favor of primary treatment for their sons, infanticide of female babies, sex trafficking, honor killings, and so much more. All of these cruelties are outgrowths of gender inequality.

Half the Sky highlights not only the horrible gender-based injustices occurring around the globe, including sex slavery, rape, honor killings, maternal mortality, and misogyny among others, but also solutions for improvement. To truly engage readers, the authors rely primarily upon the narratives of women who have suffered through horrible events. We meet a multitude of strong, courageous, and remarkable women that have prevailed despite the odds. While these success stories are encouraging, they are far from the norm. But they do provide a sense of hope that something can be done to improve conditions and to fight what Kristof and WuDunn think will be this century’s major moral battle: gender inequality. And what the authors and plenty other scholars believe to be a key solution to winning this one is education for women.

Gender inequality hurts not only the women subject to discrimination, but also the men who help to compose the society at large. By keeping women uneducated, they are thus unable to contribute to any sort of progress or development efforts. Multiple humanitarian organizations have cited educating women as a central tenet of their mission because doing so will undoubtedly enrich societies. Programs as varied as The Hunger Project, Doctors without Borders, The Center for Global Development, and even the Nike Foundation all focus a large portion of their efforts on women because of the untapped potential for good of doing so.

All throughout the book, readers are provided with the outlines of potential solutions in which they can take part. Kristof and WuDunn showcase remarkable individuals who have done great things to help women around the globe, such as Frank Grijalva, a teacher at a private school in Redmond, Washington. Grijalva encouraged his students to raise $13,000 to build a school in a border town in Cambodia. The teacher started the project in an effort to open his upper-middle-class students’ eyes to the reality of the lives of others around the globe. But beyond simply funding the construction of this school, many of Grijalva’s students have actually traveled with him to Cambodia to witness first-hand the conditions that define the Cambodian students’ lives. Though building the Cambodian school was an extremely powerful project for the Redmond students, the visit solidified a commitment to service for so many of the Americans, while also fostering positive international friendships among individual students. What the authors continually come back to is the importance of gaining a true understanding of how the other half lives in order to create better solutions. The Redmond students were very much changed by their time in Cambodia and much more essentially affected by the trip than by their fundraising efforts to build the school. This example speaks to the power those of us in the first world have and the ways in which we need to critically think about our potential for making an impact instead of just throwing money at problems without viable solutions.

Kristof and WuDunn consider the West to hold some responsibility in altering the reality of gross gender inequality, poverty, and lack of education. Kristoff speaks with an Indian officer patrolling the Indian-Nepalese border and is shocked to find that the intelligence officer only concerns himself with pirated and smuggled goods, not people. Their exchange is almost laughable in that this officer continually completely fails to understand Kristoff’s concern about women involved in sex trafficking. As the authors see it, this is an instance when perceived Western values influence decisions around the globe. As they explain it “India had delegated an intelligence officer to look for pirated goods because it knew that the United States cares about intellectual property. When India feels that the West cares as much about slavery as it does about pirated DVDs, it will dispatch people to the borders to stop traffickers.” The blame is not entirely on our shoulders as Westerners, however we are the ones with the greatest power, politically, ideologically, and otherwise, to do something about it. The authors take a very fair and honest look at what is being done and what could be done to help.

Usually when I post reviews about non-fiction, I am satisfied to know that I shared with my readers a bit of the content of the book, even if they aren’t likely to go out and pick the book up for themselves. With Half the Sky, I truly hope that readers give serious consideration to finding a copy and diving right in. There are far too many things wrong in the world today and, for plenty of concerned individuals, the odds of making an impact are just too small. Kristoff and WuDunn will definitely further educate you on the woes of the world, the gross inequities and the horrible losses that we are doing nothing to stop. But they will also offer a picture of hope. The whole premise of this book is that these instances of oppression can be turned into opportunities for women. And the authors of Half the Sky devote a large portion of their work to those opportunities, both examples of and methods of creating them.

The last few sections of the book set out a larger plan for addressing the instances of oppression that are covered in prior chapters. The vision that Kristof and WuDunn set forth is inspired and inspiring, but also attainable. They draw comparisons to the British anti-slavery movement in the late 18th century that put the fight for women’s rights internationally into a whole new perspective. But they also highlight those small things that individuals can do to make an impact on any level.

Half the Sky has the unique ability to enrage and activate readers, to educate and direct them, to ignite and inspire change. Individuals in the Western world have the greatest ability to lead a movement to educate women, improve international health, and guarantee greater happiness and full protection of human rights for people of both sexes the whole world over.

For more information about the book and to learn what you can do to help turn oppression into opportunity for women, visit the Half the Sky website here.