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

Read the previous day's exchange

Sarah Hampson, Globe columnist: Good morning Sally. Well, it's a wonder my wedding dress didn't spontaneously combust after I read the story in today's paper about marriage in Afghan culture. It's down in the garage, packaged up - hermetically, I should add - almost 23 years after the one time I wore it, and about six years since my divorce.

In contemporary Western life, we are still mulling over the meaning of the marriage culture, and the institution itself, that many of us willingly - and dare I say, dreamily - engaged in, and still do. It is under revolution as the family undergoes reconstruction in terms of assumed gender roles. And for many, it can still be a shock when they realize how they unconsciously assumed a retrograde wife identity post-altar. (Mostly, that's about "being a good wife" - the adjective governing a lot of behaviour from demure sexuality to soup-making.)

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So, to read about forced marriage and young girls being sold to men (geezers, often!) for the equivalent of $15,000 - well, it's a shocking reminder of the roots of marriage as an institution: women as property; chattel, basically.

But maybe, as you have been saying, these "traditions" in Afghanistan, are difficult to budge, even when the government has signed the Protocols for the Elimination of Forced and Child Marriage.

Sally Armstrong, journalist: As you probably know, women were legally "chattel" in Canada until 1968. That meant a man had the right to beat his wife - the right!!! And if you recall, women being married in those days said, "I obey" when they took their marriage vows. All of which reminds us that change can happen. Women in Canada demanded change and got it (well most of it) and women in Afghanistan are making the same demands today.

The issue that struck me about today's instalment was the new study about the effect gender equality has on village income. These studies began at the World Bank in 1985. They've been updated every five years since and in every study, they show unequivocally that if you treat the women fairly, the economy of the village will improve. But the perplexing part is that not much changed - women were still at the end of the line when it came to aid because donated dollars were given to men who chose projects involving the well being of men.

Now you couldn't get a red cent from a place like CIDA unless there is a gender component in your project. But benefitting the women is still a challenge. For example, a health clinic for women, paid for with donated dollars, is built too far for the women to walk to or in a place women are forbidden. Who's maintaining these barriers and how are they going to be removed? One of the things CIDA did when husbands in Kandahar refused to let their wives go to literacy classes was to offer food for school programs. If a woman attends classes to learn to read and write, she gets food for her family. Clever move.

It's going to take a combined effort from economists and humanitarians and those with expertise in gender issues to knock down the barriers for women and girls.

One more thing - speaking of money - how do you suppose these seemingly poor men in Afghanistan come up with $15,000 for a bride price?

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Sarah: One wife = five goats? I don't know the price of goods in Afghanistan, but "bride price" certainly serves to underscore how women are seen as part of the necessary menagerie of a household. The whole story is sobering as a woman - to realize how important the advancements for women have been here - and how much we are still thinking through the freighted messages of Wife. It's an ancient tradition the tentacles of which still reach into the minds of women.

On a related note, I wanted to make a further comment on something we left off with yesterday. I was remarking how most religion involves empathy and that I thought the women of Afghanistan almost have to demonstrate to their male religious leaders how some form of emancipation for them is not a threat to the family, to their husbands, to Islam, to the country. And you responded that while you understood that empathy is at the centre of most religion, you felt that some is wielded to control women and girls.

It made me think about some of the Muslims I have spoken to over the years for various stories - Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, a well-known columnist and author in London, England, most recently - who lament the perversion of their religion by some extremists. There is a variety of religious thought in Islam just as there is in Christianty.( We don't all hope that the End is Nigh so we can be saved, for example.) It's a matter of the moderates winning out over the extremists, I suppose, even though their voices get lost in the general melee. (And moderate thinkers do not always find purchase in the media, which tends to report on incivility rather than on civility - something Barack Obama has been saying recently.)

In the accompanying story in today's paper about the wisdom of investing in girls and women in Third World countries, there was a heartening observation from Lauryn Oates, an aid consultant in B.C. who manages Afghan projects for women. She said that Pashtun elders in a small village outside of Kabul were initially against opening a girls' high school. But after they saw that a women's literacy program didn't cause the women to leave their husbands and start dressing in tube tops or something, they opened up to the idea of educating the young women.

This is the problem it seems to me - and by understanding it, we can find where some of the solution hopefully lies. There seems to be this unfounded fear that if educated, the women will bring shame to their families and the religious community. But it's such a narrow view - that women can't be devout, honourable to their husbands, good mothers and educated, too.

When they show that they can be, the fear subsides, and the men and elders become "open-minded." "We see that all the time," Ms. Oates commented about the willingness to educate women.

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Education doesn't make a woman reject a husband or her biological imperative to reproduce or her religion. Afghan women need to ease their men into acceptance of this fact. I felt hopeful about the men after reading that.

Sally: Sarah, you have a kinder gentler view of these issues than I do. That Afghan women need to ease their men into acceptance is a lovely thought. But it isn't a matter of sitting down with a cup of tea and saying, "Hey honey, I was thinking about making a few changes around here."

Saving face is everything to men in Afghanistan. I remember when the Senlis Council suggested the poppy harvest be legitimized as they thought there was a shortage of morphine in the world, my reaction was - great - make the drug barons and war lords CEOs of pharmaceutical companies. They'll save face and even money since they won't have to pay off militias to get the drugs moving.

On a less sarcastic note, reading and watching today's instalment about Sitara being beaten and having to succumb to strict cultural codes about so-called honour lest she be disowned or killed reinforces my concern about religion being more about power and control than empathy when it's in the hands of opportunistic men.

To murder your own daughter and call it honour. To give your blameless child to a man knowing she will be sexually assaulted. To send your girl back to her husband when she comes pleading to you with her broken arms and blackened eyes. To shroud her in black garments that absorb the blazing heat, so she will avert the eyes of men who strut about in white robes that deflect the heat. To ask her how she was dressed - was it modest enough? - when the rapist defiled her. To suggest that her loss of chastity is her own fault, that a man can't help himself.

These are the norms in the lives of women who are controlled by so-called religious men. But most of the world is silent on the subject. It makes me wonder how we can sell ourselves so cheap.

Sarah: I am not "kinder" and "gentler" in the way that suggests naivete. The treatment of child brides is horrific. And there is obviously much work to be done, as we have been saying, to help the women and girls in Afghanistan.

What I wonder is how the conflict between old and new (or newer) ways in Afghanistan is partly fueled by the so-called "clash of civilizations." The men, elders, etc, do not understand the West as much as we sometimes do not understand their culture. (We judge it often, before we try to understand its intricacies.) They see us as infection in their culture. We see them as threats to security. But there is middle ground. It's just hard to find - and explain to each side.

Sally: I think you're right - the middle ground is hard to find. Education is probably the best route to understanding - for both sides.

I remember when I first went to Afghanistan, most of what caught my attention was the drab dessert landscape, the harsh granite rock, the overflowing stinking latrines and the invisible women. But as I got to know the place, I saw splashes of colour in the desert: soft pink hues in the rock; and a riot of orange tangerines on trolleys at the roadside. And of course as I came to know the people, I was caught in what many Afghanophiles refer to as the Afghan virus - the charms and cultural norms that are as endearing as they are perplexing and keep bringing you back.

One of the issues I see for the Canadian public is that most of the news they get about Afghanistan is about the insurgency. While I strongly agree that when the men and women in our military are in harm's way, reporters need to be there covering the story, there is much more to the story of Afghanistan - and the women of Afghanistan - than what is told about the four southern provinces involved in the insurgency. The other 30 provinces in Afghanistan need to get their story out as well.

I'll be interested to see where this series goes next. Shall we pick up again tomorrow?

Sarah: Good idea. I envy you the opportunties you have had to see the larger picture of Afghanistan. We are in a strange situation, those Canadians, who, like me, only read the stories and see the videos about a country that involves ours to such a degree. We have a small aperture through which we are trying to understand such a vast landscape, political and cultural. Your thoughts and observations are helpful. We'll begin again tomorrow.

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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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