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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: Hi Sarah. False eyelashes? Poor little rich girls? What goes on here? The plight of the women of Afghanistan is not about being so rich that you're not allowed to go out and be exposed to the wide world. It's also not about how hard your daily life is: The average Afghan family has seven children - no matter how you cut it, that's a lot of laundry, cooking, negotiating and dawn to dark work.

What their lives are about is Hamidi's throw-away line in today's instalment . She speaks of "the ugly, cultural, negative and backward customs." Never mind who these horrific habits are carried out by, she's referring to tribal law, forced marriages, child marriages (when nine-year-olds are betrothed to 65-year-olds) and the ritualistic abuse of women. All of it is brutal, illegal and it simply has to stop. This clinging to a primitive past is what's holding the entire country back. I wonder why the international community dismisses this as none of our business.

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Over to you.

Sarah Hampson, Globe columnist: The story of the plight of Afghan women reads like a feminist's nightmare. But that, I think, can easily become part of the problem: that we can fall into the trap of projecting our own feminist angst onto the lives of women half a world away. I am not saying that we shouldn't pay attention or try to help. The resolutions in the Afghan constitution about equality between the sexes are important. (And the tragedy is they do not seem to be making much difference.)

But we can get sidelined in the discussion if we are simply worrying over the fact that the mothers have to do all the laundry and the cooking and work, outside of the home, if they should be so lucky as to have "open-minded" husbands who let them venture out to an office as Suhaila, the 39-year-old mother of five, can. Even in good ol' Canada, there are many mothers and wives who complain of the same "household conditions," if you will. And it's always dangerous to talk about women who are "wasting" their lives because they are stuck indoors, having babies and cleaning. As my colleague, Jessica Leeder, writes in today's story, the women who are wealthy enough not to have to work do not see their lives as bad. That is where feminist projection can be a waste of time and energy.

We should not be judging the content of other women's lives - that is what makes Western feminism so internecine and counter-productive - we should be trying to ensure that they have the choice to be educated. That's where the expression and loss of hope in the child bride, Sitara, 15, who talks about men seeing women as no more than slaves, just breaks my heart.

How can these resolutions for equal rights be enforced?

Sally: When I first started covering this story in the fall of 1996, I did some self-censoring - reminded myself that projecting our own lifestyles on the lives of other women is a mistake. But as time went on I realized the story wasn't about that at all. It's about ancient customs that brutalize women and girls and presumptions that defy explanation.You ask how equal rights can be enforced. Consider one of the best-known tribal laws called " bad."

If your tribe has a quarrel with my tribe and your tribe wins, I am required to give your tribe a little girl, sometimes two or three little girls depending on the size of the harm done. I met one such child who'd been given in " bad" as a four-year-old. She'd been sexually abused; her back was covered with scars from burns and she was tethered to a harness and being used as a plough horse when at the age of 8 she escaped. I asked a man how anyone could do such a thing to a child. He replied, "I know it's wrong but it's our way." This is not about feminist angst. Nor is it cultural. It's criminal. And it's not uncommon. The women and girls won't have equality until there's accountability. And Afghanistan cannot go ahead without the women.

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Sarah: Enlightenment. But how can that be brought to the men? Progress for women is in their hands, in a way. It doesn't matter how much noise the women and the Western activitists make, it seems. Progress (or lack of it) comes down to what happens inside the walls of the family - that private, unseen place where all kinds of cruelty can happen, even at the insistence of the mothers-in-law, it seems. (This is an aside, but the Afghan family seems to take the evil mother-in-law archetype to a whole new level.)

Mostly, though, I wonder about the men inside those walls. Don't some see the possible benefit of having women engaged in their lives happily, treated as more than cattle? Men aren't stupid. Don't they want the country to progress? When I look at these women beneath their burkas or swathed in their headscarves, I find myself intrigued by their personalites, the parts, at least, that peek out. Some are resigned to their fate; some are so vulnerable, like the 50-year-old beggar and mother of eight, Bibi Gul, who feels that her interviewer is mocking her, when asked if she ever thinks about wanting to drive a car in Kandahar.

But some are feisty - at least those have you met on your trips to the country - as you were saying to me in our exchanges yesterday. Do men feel emasculated when their women want to be treated as equals? The man you describe explains that the tribal customs regarding women are just "our way." But is this a man-code thing, too? That they feel they cannot allow progress for women because it impinges on their sense of what it means to be a man? Like, get a life, buddy. I find myself wanting to know how the men in all this mess think.

Sally: You touch on a very sensitive issue. Of course, all the men cannot be tarred with the same brush and of course reasonable people see a woman's education and ability to earn money as an advantage. But this is a country with an exceptionally high illiteracy rate, a country where tradition is followed blindly and irrationally. Old habits die hard. Even well-educated women in cities such as Kabul, women who have travelled broadly, know that their own emancipation is at the will of the men in their lives. And even well-educated men tend to pay lip service to equality. "My wife can go to work and my daughter can go to school but only with my permission." Change takes time

However, something is happening now that can be very effective in changing these norms. The first ever nation-wide studies have been conducted on issues such as polygamy and tribal law. The studies, done by the Women and Children Legal Research Foundation in Kabul, found that 86 per cent of Afghans are against polygamy. They also discovered that although most citizens, even the government, thought that tribal law was legal, it is not. Women are meeting with mullahs to discuss these results. And to explain that there's no place in the Koran that supports notions such as women not working, girls not going to school or even women covering their faces.

It's the reformers that make me hopeful.

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Sarah: How change happens is a fascinating subject. You have to work with your oppressors, in some sense, show them they have no reason to feel threatened. And you need to be armed with details - such as those from the studies you cite. People are often more comfortable to rely on assumption, on tradition.

Well, it's easier, I guess, than trying to really find out how people think and what they want. I think we have to believe in the goodness of human nature in order to have hope. We have to believe that given the chance to understand how people feel and think, they - and I mean here, the religious leaders and others in power - would want to do the right thing.

Empathy lies at the heart of all religion. Empathy is what breaks down walls. Is it only international condemnation that makes a leader want to ensure that men and women are treated equally as human beings? Maybe it's naive for me not to think so. I want to believe that with the tools of information, with education and an opportunity for insight - with examples of devout Afghan women who are happy as mothers and wives and workers outside the home - that many people in Afghanistan will want to ensure that the lives of women are valued as much as those of men. The women in these videos who are content with their lives - however much we may feel they are still constrained when viewed through the lens of Western ideals - are not a threat to their men or their country.

Let's continue the conversation tomorrow.

Sally: I wish you were right about empathy lying at the heart of all religions. I dare say power and control play a substantial role, particularly in the lives of women and girls. Lots to talk about. A demain.

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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About the Author
Life columnist

Sarah Hampson is an award-winning journalist whose work started appearing in The Globe and Mail in 1998, when she was invited to write a column. Since 1993, when she began her career in journalism, she had been writing for all of Canada's major magazines, including Toronto Life, Saturday Night (now defunct), Chatelaine, Report on Business and Canadian Art, among others. More

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