Nicholas Kristof Visits Conn, Prompts Much Controversy Amongst Student Body

At 4:30 PM on Wednesday, February 13, Evans Hall was overflowing with students and faculty gathered to listen to Nicholas D. Kristof of the New York Times. Professor Jane Dawson introduced the speaker of this keynote event of the College’s “Striving for Global Justice” series as a “tireless crusader for human rights.”

Kristof began his lecture by stressing the importance of Americans spending time outside of their comfort zones. After sharing a lost-in-translation anecdote from his own college study abroad experience in Egypt, he declared that he wished upon all of the students in front of him the same “in-over-your-head experience.” He then stated the two themes of his and his wife Sheryl WuDunn’s book Half the Sky. The first is gender inequity as the central moral challenge of the twenty-first century (like slavery was in the nineteenth century and totalitarianism in the twentieth). Second is the idea that women and girls are not the problem – they are the solution.

He then dove into the agenda laid out in Half the Sky. The first issue is that of sex trafficking. He noted that “At its extreme, prostitution is a modern form of slavery.” He made a point that while it might be easy to dismiss these practices as occurrences in seemingly far removed countries, “homegrown sex trafficking” is very prevalent in the United States as well. When speaking of the tactics used to physically and psychologically break down women and girls who are trapped in the sex trafficking business, Kristof said “The process… is remarkably similar whether it is in New York or Cambodia.”

The second prong of his plan was to address the issue of high maternal mortality rates in the developing world. Unfortunately, he only scraped the surface in describing contributing factors to this problem, citing as an example the issue of the obstructed fistulas in young girls who give birth despite narrow, undeveloped pelvises. He offered increased education about birth control as a solution and left the audience pondering his statement that “We don’t work adequately on addressing contraceptive needs largely because of abortion wars in the U.S.”

Kristof moved on to discuss education, which he believes to be women and girls’ most effective means of leverage in society. He then promptly and unconventionally pulled out his iPhone to dial Connecticut College alumna Beatrice Biira ’08. On speakerphone, Biira spoke of her excellent education at the College, saying how empowered she feels now that she has the tools to make decisions about how she lives her own life. Biira grew up in a rural Ugandan village; her long journey to the United States began with a goat given to her family by Heifer International. As education for girls was considered a luxury to most people in Biira’s community, it was not until her family received extra funds from selling the goat’s milk that they invested in her education.

Looking out to the students in the audience, Kristof ended his lecture by claiming that “The fact that we are in this auditorium right now means we have won the lottery of life.” He then cautioned that “[There is a large] responsibility that comes along with that.”

After opening up the floor for questions, Kristof responded to a question about cultural norms posed by Amanda Klay ’13, saying “I think, in general, we should be deferential to other cultures’ norms… but when it reaches violence to the point in which lives are put in danger… we must give the microphone to local people speaking out for change.”

Following the lecture in Evans Hall, Kristof spoke in a roundtable discussion in Blaustein where he was questioned by students representing the Ammerman Center for Arts and Technology, the Center for the Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity, the Goodwin-Niering Center for the Environment, the Holleran Center for Community Action and Public Policy and the Toor Cummings Center for International Studies and the Liberal Arts. The event was open to faculty and students of the five academic centers.

In the discussion, he answered questions on a variety of subjects. Some examples were how he chooses the topics for his column, the political roles held by women, issues on the home front (as opposed to abroad), his own interest in human rights, the environment and cultural education reform. In answering all of these, he maintained his underlying message of the importance of grassroots efforts and “all of the above” mentalities in terms of all human rights issues we are faced with today and how to prioritize them. He answered questions quite honestly, being very upfront in particular about his journalistic methods of gaining the public’s attention and searching for “protagonists” who were most likely to catch the eye of the Western reader. Otherwise, he shrugged, the majority simply does not read about human rights in the news.

The highlight of the roundtable was undoubtedly his exchange with Mimi Bangali ’13 over female genital cutting. Bangali, a senior CISLA scholar who hails from Sierra Leone, began by questioning Kristof on his stance on the United Nations’ recent proposed ban on all female genital cutting. As the cultural relativist position she was representing came head to head with Kristof’s standpoint rooted in universalism, Bangali was frank: “I’m not cool with a bunch of white men sitting in air conditioned rooms in New York telling African women what to do with their bodies.”

Kristof ultimately agreed with Bangali’s stance that adult women who are fully versed about the health risks surrounding female genital cutting could make decisions for themselves. However, he did not back down from his viewpoint that parents should not, under medically unsound circumstances, be making damaging and life-threatening choices like that of infibulation for their young daughters.

“I didn’t like that he used the term mutilation. Infibulation is the worst, it’s the extreme,” reflected Bangali. Sonya Rao ’13, who spoke on the panel on behalf of the Center for the Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity jumped in, adding that the term creates a “…stigma. It increases the perception that Africans oppress themselves… It’s backwards… we don’t need that. It’s [reinforcing] the notion that cultural imperialism is okay.”

Commenting on some of Kristof’s economic outlooks, such as the importance of empowering women economically by involving them in grassroots microfinance organizations, Juan Pablo Pacheco ’14 said, “There’s this premise that economic development is what saves the world. This is basically an assimilation process that is intrinsically unequal.” Other students expressed dissatisfaction with the large proportion of stories Kristof shared that featured American and Western heroes.

Alanna Jamner ’14, however, is very much in favor of Kristof’s economic-empowerment approach. Recognizing that Western and American involvement often plays a large role in getting these organizations off the ground and that spreading awareness is important, she commented, “With great power does come great responsibility, and the reason why we are even hearing these stories is because of him.”

After speaking on the panel on behalf of the Goodwin-Niering Center for the Environment, Jessie Mehrhoff ’14 expressed that “The theme of the evening, and even semester, is ‘striving for global justice’ and Mr. Kristof is the epitome [of] a person who is working towards just that. It is evident in his pictures and stories that his efforts have brought smiles to girls’ faces around the world; he has had a positive global impact. There is no perfect way to go about fighting the oppression of women, the issue is just too complex. I feel as though everyone that went into the lecture with an open mind was able to learn something valuable from Mr. Kristof’s lecture, making his presence a benefit to the college community.”

Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies Ariella Rotramel said of the evening, “I appreciated the range of questions that students raised at Evans Hall and Blaustein on Wednesday.” Professor Rotramel added, “From my perspective, a key point to explore in our growing conversation could be what bottom-up movements look like and how people across differences can participate in them.  While Kristof offers one particular path, I would suggest turning to successful transnational women’s movements that overtly recognize the importance of addressing inequalities through as many approaches as possible (from protests to political education to lobbying to service providing).”

Looking forward, she continued, “I hope that our future dialogues will assist our community in discussing how such sustained commitments are a critical component of addressing the problems that Kristof identifies as defining this century.”

Kristof’s visit to campus certainly captivated much of the community’s attention. Keep your ears open for more Striving for Global Justice series events still to come this semester.