When merchants wanted more embroidery than Saima could produce, she paid neighbors to work for her. Eventually thirty families were working for Saima, and she put her husband to work as well—"under my direction," she explained with a twinkle in her eye. Saima became the tycoon of the neighborhood, and she was able to pay off her husband's entire debt, keep her daughters in school, renovate the house, connect running water to the house, and buy a television.
"Now everyone comes to me to borrow money, the same ones who used to criticize me," Saima said, beaming in satisfaction. "And the children of those who used to criticize me now come to my house to watch TV."
A round-faced woman with thick black hair that just barely peeks out from under her red-and-white-checked scarf, Saima is now a bit plump and displays a gold nose ring as well as several other rings and bracelets on each wrist. She dresses well and exudes self-confidence as she offers a grand tour of her home and work area, ostentatiously showing off the television and the new plumbing. She doesn't even pretend to be subordinate to her husband. He spends his days mostly loafing around, occasionally helping with the work but always having to take orders from his wife. He is now more impressed with females in general: Saima had a third child, also a girl, but that's not a problem. "Girls are just as good as boys," he explained.
"We have a good relationship now," said Saima. "We don't fight, and he treats me well." And what about finding another wife who might bear him a son? Saima chuckled at the question: "Now nobody says anything about that." Sharifa Bibi, the mother-in-law, looked shocked when we asked whether she wanted her son to take a second wife to bear a son. "No, no," she said. "Saima is bringing so much to this house. . . . She's an exemplary daughter-in-law. She puts a roof over our heads and food on the table."
Sharifa even allows that Saima is now largely exempt from beatings by her husband. "A woman should know her limits, and if not then it's her husband's right to beat her," Sharifa said. "But if a woman earns more than her husband, it's difficult for him to discipline her."
Saima's new prosperity has also transformed the family's educational prospects. She is planning to send all three of her daughters through high school, and maybe to college as well. She brings in tutors to improve their schoolwork, and her youngest child, Javaria, is ranked first in her class. We asked Javaria what she wanted to become, thinking she might aspire to be a doctor or lawyer.
Javaria cocked her head. "I'd like to do embroidery," she said.
Excerpted from Half the Sky by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. Copyright © 2009 by Nicholas D. Kristof. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.