It takes a little effort to find the exhibition “Women Hold Up Half the Sky” at the Skirball Cultural Center. You have to bypass three alluring gift shops and a bunch of other special exhibitions as well as close your ears to the children laughing in “Noah’s Ark” to get to a quiet gallery at the back of the museum, where a display of photos and wall texts will punch you in the stomach, then fill you with hope.
The show was inspired by and adapted from the best-selling book “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women” (Alfred A. Knopf, 2009) by New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas D. Kristof and former Times reporter Sheryl WuDunn, his wife. The show tells horrific stories of women dying in childbirth in Africa because their religion doesn’t permit them to be seen by doctors, even if the physicians are female and husbands are present. Of women who survive pregnancies only to have their bodies left severely damaged because of inadequate care. Of young girls trafficked as sex slaves. But the show also tells stories of women who, with just a few dollars, started businesses that now employ whole villages. Of women who found their way to hospitals for their own care and then became health-care workers helping others.
It is an exhibition where you are asked to face despair head on, then see how it can be turned upside down when women are empowered.
During the opening week of the exhibition last month, I met Sakena Yacoobi, one of the empowered women championed by Kristof and WuDunn in the book, though she is only included at the Skirball in one of the multiple interactive multimedia displays that allow for direct donations to the causes.
Yacoobi came to Los Angeles from Afghanistan to talk about her work; while here she was escorted by a group of American Jewish World Service (AJWS) members from throughout the United States. AJWS has long been a strong supporter of Yacoobi’s work — building schools for women previously not allowed any form of education under the Taliban.
I’ve met many powerful people in my life, but no one has surprised or impressed me as much as Yacoobi. Appearing in traditional Muslim attire, her face revealed but the rest of her body covered in colorful dress, she greeted me at first with a gentle handshake and quiet smile. But after just one question about her work and the situation back home, I felt like I was facing a tidal wave heading toward me at 100 mph, leaving me both stunned and mesmerized. Yacoobi is that powerful.
Over the past 12 years, beginning with work in refugee camps and now throughout her country by means of her nongovernmental organization, the Afghan Institute of Learning, Yacoobi has educated women, who educate women, who educate their husbands and others. She figures she now reaches about 350,000 people annually through programs at 42 sites.
At the heart of her work is a simple philosophy: Ignorant women have no recourse. Ones who know how to read can know their rights.
“I am teaching women, they are becoming empowered. They are getting awareness, getting jobs. Becoming agents of change,” Yacoobi said. “They are learning about democracy and how important is gender equality. They are learning about health. Afghanistan has the second-highest rate of mortality in the world.”
Yacoobi talks with an urgency that comes from a place where every life is constantly in danger. “The situation in Afghanistan is very bad,” she said, though she brushes off any threats to her own safety. (Back home she has to travel with bodyguards, however.) She knows that her efforts are changing her world, but she’s afraid that at any moment her efforts could be curtailed — not just by a return of radical Muslim rule, but by a lack of money.
She said she believes that over the next five years, she could change as many as 8 million more lives. But to do so, she said, she’ll need another $8.5 million. Just over $1 per person — not bad, but a lot. Here’s how it works: “I have a teacher in my school teaching 35 students. And those students leave and teach another 35 at a time. I have 40 to 50 people come to a leadership conference, each one reaches another 40 to 50.” She has seen it add up.
Is this a full education? We think of high school, college, graduate school. Yacoobi’s view is different — by opening minds, she’s opening doors. “There are different levels of education,” she said. “I’m teaching people what is democracy. What is fairness. What is equality.”
She is helping to build a new society that, we should all hope, might endure when the American soldiers leave. But her cry for help is real; she now spends more time traveling, raising awareness — and funds — than she can building schools. She had just come from Mexico, was off to Qatar, then back to San Francisco. “I am 60, I have no family; my life is my program,” she told me. “Pray for me that I have another 10 years, because I have a lot of work to do.”
All for women so they really can hold up half the sky.
We can help Yacoobi by directing gifts to AJWS to the Afghan Institute of Learning.
And she’s just one of the courageous women needing support. At this time of year, as we turn our thoughts to the blessings afforded us, the Skirball show reminds us of lives far more endangered than our own. Where the benefit of a few dollars can help to build enterprising businesses, to extend lives.
And here’s one more tip: One of those gift shops at the Skirball offers opportunities for a great mitzvah: It’s filled with amazingly beautiful handicrafts all made by the subjects of “Half the Sky.” Buying a necklace or purse or something else for yourself or a loved one supports their work. How cool is that?