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Author and activist Sally Armstrong, left, and Globe and Mail columnist Sarah Hampson

Read the previous day's exchange

Sally Armstrong, journalist: Good morning Sarah. Women like Shukufa in today's instalment give me reason to cheer. She's like many of the women I've met in Afghanistan, even during the "Taliban time," as they call it, who against all odds find their way into civil society. And she represents other women in Kandahar, which surely is the heart of darkness in Afghanistan today, who are working as teachers, embroiderers, soap makers, civil servants and professionals.

There is a piece of all of these interviews that intrigues me. I'm never quite certain about the message the women and girls are delivering. Shukufa, for example, says she took this job because she was poor and needed work. But now she loves it. Others say they work because their husbands are "open-minded." I sometimes get the impression the women are answering the questions by saying what is expected of them rather than what they think. There's an expression in Afghanistan that translated says, "I can't answer your question because my mouth is full of water." It means, "I can't tell you the truth because someone may be hurt or get into trouble."

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I think if The Globe reporters could have conducted these interviews, we would have had more interesting dialogue. What do you think?

Sarah Hampson, Globe columnist: Interesting point, Sally. When women are devalued, would they value their own feelings? Would they say what's on their mind, when many have been encouraged not to think for themselves? I'm not sure it would matter who conducted the interviews, frankly. Some women speak with candour - saying that brides are treated like slaves doesn't sound like a careful statement. But I agree that others respond with bromides. And in the circumstances of the video interviews, they seem nervous and sometimes a bit suspicious of why they are being asked these questions at all. It made me wonder how hard it was to get ten women to speak.

On a separate note, I have to say that today, I feel disheartened again about the struggles of women in Afghanistan after reading the story and watching the video. It is such a rollercoaster of emotion this series. One day I read something that gives me hope. (Yesterday, the idea that education for girls and opportunities for women can happen when elders see they are not a threat to the culture and the family.) And the next, like today, girls being d oused with acid on their way to school? And women who endanger their lives by going to work - like the embroiderers or Shukufa, the 19-year-old police woman - but have no choice because they are poor?

I once interviewed Khorshied Samad, wife of Omar Samad, the former Afghanistan ambassador to Canada. Born and raised in California, she had gone to Afghanistan, where her father was from, after 9/11 to work for a news outlet. That's where she met her husband. She wept a little when she spoke of the strength and hope of the Afghan people, and the women especially. Don't give up on us, she said. The country's history of strife is heart-breaking, and there is a need for the international community to prevent another power vacuum, to give the country a chance to get back on its feet.

I mention this because one of the things I have been thinking about is the average Afghan's sense of his or her country and nation. What do they articulate it as? What binds them to their country? Or do they just not have a choice about whether to stay or get out of there?

Sally: Your comment about an Afghan's sense of nation is important. Although every warrior known to history, from Alexander the Great, Darius the First and Genghis Khan to the Brits and the Russians, have all taken a run at Afghanistan, the Afghan people have an extraordinary sense of who they are. Even the constant warring between the six major tribes hasn't altered the mother-country devotion.

I can give you an example that connects today's video about education to the sense of nation that I think the people have. You probably know about the Canadian initiative called Breaking Bread for Women. It's a potluck supper where everyone writes a cheque at the end of the night with the intention of raising $750 - the annual salary of a teacher in Afghanistan. The program took off like a grass fire when it started about seven years ago and presently there are more than 50,000 little girls in school in Afghanistan because Canadians - tennis clubs, bridge clubs, teachers, nurses, neighbourhoods - get together to have these potluck parties.

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All that to say, I travelled to Jaghori in the central highlands of Afghanistan to see how it was working. The students knocked me out. They had to walk miles to get there. In fact, in their school uniforms - black dresses with white head scarves - they looked like penguins dotting the earth as they came over the mountains and through the valleys to school. One of the things that struck me was their plans for the future. When I asked a little six-year-old girl why she was at this school, she replied as Afghans often do, saying, "Because when I'm grown up I'm going to be a somebody."

I asked her who that somebody might be. She said, "The president of Afghanistan." They all wanted to be doctors and teachers as kids often claim. One of them, a 10-year-old who'd missed five years of school during the Taliban, said she wanted to be an astronaut - how's that!

In any case not one said she wanted to get the heck out of the country that was teetering on pretty rough ground. They all wanted to be part of the future of Afghanistan. I think that speaks volumes about nationhood.

Sarah: That does. But interestingly, not one of the women in the interviews ever speaks about love of nation. Or the desire to have her country back. A strong sense of national pride and identity can be such a powerful force. I think of those nutty tea-party protesters in the States, declaring that they must take their country back from Barack Obama. Misinformed but wow. When asked if they would vote in the election, most of the Afghan women interviewed scoffed - what would I know? I cannot read or write. What's the point? So, if passionate nationhood is present, it is latent. Or, perhaps, so inured to war and conflict, they crave nothing more than security by whomever's hand that can deliver it.

Sally: That's the point I was trying to make about the interviews. I think if The Globe reporters were conducting the interviews, we'd have had a lot more insight. It sounds to me as though a fairly bossy dame is barking out questions and moving on despite the reply she gets. As you know, that's not how journalism works. The women being interviewed look to me as though they are suspicious of the interviewer. And no wonder; the attitude of the questioner sounds rather uppity and superior. I have a lot of questions: Why did Shukufa cover her face for the interview. She doesn't cover it when she goes out in public to do her job. Why is the 14-year-old so discouraged? Did she have a bad day or does she really see the situation as hopeless and if that's the case, why does she bother to go to school. As I said, I think pessimism is in the DNA of Afghans but I also think professional journalists would have sussed out a more accurate portrayal.

Sarah: Lots to talk about on that subject. The 14-year-old student, Shahzia, intrigues me, too. With her scarf wrapped over her face, she looks bandaged up like a burn victim, and I want to know far more about her than the interviewer was able to elicit. Trust is such a huge part of a successful interview, and empathy (my favorite word!) But the interview process here feels a little like a government interrogation at times. We'll continue tomorrow.

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Sally: Okay Sarah. Talk then.

Read the next day's exchange

  • Although known primarily as a profile writer, the Globe and Mail's Sarah Hampson has an interest in many topics. She has covered business stories about female ambition, the appeal of late-night browsing on the Shopping Channel, the mating and feeding habits of Bay Street denizens and the retail magic of Holt Renfrew. She has reflected on her life as a mother of three boys. She has trekked across the Arctic lowlands of Devon Island, the world's largest uninhabited island, for a travel memoir and ventured into the wrong Chicago 'hood with basketball legend, Isiah Thomas. Since 2007, she has written Generation Ex, a column in The Globe about the social phenomenon of divorce. She also writes Currency, a weekly column about the way we spend money. Her book about mid-life post-divorce, A Place to Land, will be published by Knopf in the spring, 2010.
  • Sally Armstrong is an author and journalist. She has covered conflict zones all over the world, from Bosnia and Somalia to Rwanda and Afghanistan. Her documentary works include They Fell From the Sky, and The Daughters of Afghanistan. She is the author of three books: Veiled Threat: The Hidden Power of the Women of Afghanistan, The Nine Lives of Charlotte Taylor and the recently released Bitter Roots, Tender Shoots: The Uncertain Fate of Afghanistan's Women.
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