Journalist speaks up for Afghan women

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      You could say it was ironic.

      It happened at the end of International Women's Week, in an auditorium filled with about 200 women at the University of Victoria, at the close of an address by journalist and women's-rights activist Sally Armstrong, author of Veiled Threat: The Hidden Power of the Women of Afghanistan.

      Armstrong had just finished speak ­ing on the subject of "blameless women and girls who continue to pay the price of the opportunism of angry men" when four men, as if on cue, one after the other, confronted Armstrong with precisely the apologetics she had just finished addressing. It was as if the forum organizers had planned some crafty exercise in guerrilla theatre.

      But the men were not actors, and they proceeded to raise all the depressingly familiar and objectively promisogynistic complaints: Canada is occupying Afghanistan as an imperialist power; women like Armstrong "romanticize" Afghan suffering; conditions for women are worse now than under the Taliban; and Canadian women should stick to matters that directly affect them.

      That kind of thing.

      Outside the auditorium, Armstrong's detractors persisted in their hectoring, hovering around her and handing out leaflets for an "anti-war" demonstration. Armstrong was clearly shaken. "I haven't had this experience to this degree before," she told me. "I'm appalled that young people could say things like that."

      But before the leafleteers made their presence known, Armstrong had already anticipated their complaints. "They say, 'You have no business writing about our women. You're not part of our culture; you're not part of our religion.' There's a taboo about talking about it," Armstrong said. "People play it like a cultural trump card to silence women like me."

      It won't work with Armstrong. As a senior writer and editor at such otherwise breezy magazines as Chatelaine , Canadian Living , and Homemakers , Armstrong quickly established a reputation for serious, clear, and compelling accounts of the suffering of women and children in such war zones as Somalia and Rwanda.

      One of Armstrong's early accomplishments was an exposé of the "rape camps" of Bosnia, which housed roughly 20,000 women, some as young as eight, some as old as 80. Her work ended up making a key contribution to the International Criminal Court's eventual recognition of rape as a war crime.

      But it was Afghanistan that kept drawing Armstrong back. She has made several extended visits to the country over the past decade, as a magazine journalist, a documentary filmmaker, an author, and, ultimately, a champion of women's rights. Her book Veiled Threat bears witness to the astonishing struggles that Afghan women waged during the Taliban era, one of the most malevolent eruptions of misogyny in human history.

      The main protagonist in Veiled Threat is Sima Samar, the former president of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan and now the chair of Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission. Samar was the first speaker in the Lived Rights lecture series sponsored by the UVic-based International Women's Rights Project, and Armstrong's address was the latest in that same series.

      Armstrong was adamant that among Afghan women, there is now far more hope and optimism than she has ever witnessed before in more than a decade of visits to their country. Everywhere, Afghan women are insisting on their basic rights to justice, education, and equality. "The seed of human rights has been planted in Afghanistan, and I believe it has taken root," Armstrong said. "If I was a betting woman, I'd say we're turning a corner."

      While Afghan women continue to be singled out for oppression by a violent corruption of Islam, the threat they face from countries like Canada lies in the confused political debates about western intervention in their country. Canadian women should keep the public debates focused on the women and girls of Afghanistan, Armstrong pleaded, and must also fight the stubborn attitude that Afghan women should be simply left to sort out their problems by themselves.

      "I can't tell you how thoroughly surprised I am at this kind of commentary," Armstrong said. "Are we going to stand back and say, 'We only do peacekeeping'? I don't know where this stuff is coming from. From my experience, from when I was there, I think we're doing an unbelievable job." She agreed that it may be impossible to defeat the Taliban, militarily. Still, "We just have to beat them back and keep them in their caves."

      Armstrong showed little patience for fashionably revisionist explanations for Canada's military mission in Afghanistan. She said Canadian soldiers are there at the invitation of the Afghan people, and we're there because we promised to help, and because, as 9/11 demonstrated, we have no choice.

      It is ironic, you could say, that it has become controversial to point this out, and also controversial to insist, as Armstrong does, that women's rights are human rights and that human rights are universal. Which means they belong to all of us, and not least to the women and girls of Afghanistan.

      The Chronicles blog can be found at .