An interview with Sally Armstrong

Canadian Sally Armstrong has championed the cause of women in Afghanistan and is the author of two books on the subject. She has recently written Bitter Roots, Tender Shoots: The Uncertain Fate of Afghanistan's Women, published by Viking Canada.

Q: The news from Afghanistan is frightening. Recently several girls had acid thrown in their faces on the way to school, and now their friends are afraid to go to school. How did you react?

A: Like everyone, I was horrified. This was a cowardly act committed by so-called religious men who claim they act in the name of God, but it won't stop the girls from going to school. They're already back in the school where the attack happened. What's more, the vast majority of Afghans want their girls to be educated.

Q: Why are improved conditions for women and children taking so long?

A: You can't change 1,000 years of history overnight. The Taliban didn't invent this kind of treatment of women; they just took misogyny to a new and institutionalized level. It's the women reformers in Afghanistan today who are taking on brutal tribal law and extremist men and demanding change. Their stories are soul-searing, their courage remarkable. I believe they will succeed.

Q: In the practice of bad, a female family member is handed over to sometimes hostile foes for reparation. Don't the fathers, brothers and sons in Afghanistan love their female family members?

A: Love is an interesting comment. I think Afghans would tell you that loyalty is more to the emotional point. Having said that, I feel that fathers, brothers and sons do feel protection toward their [daughters, sisters and mothers], but they bow to the tyranny of tribal law.

Q: Women try to burn themselves to death because they have no other way at hand to escape life. What about an international rescue mission to help these women?

A: You can't remove all the women from the country. What you can do is support the women who are trying to reform the situation that they're in. Remember in the '60s and '70s in Canada, women shouldered open the door, making an opening for change for women and girls. But no government or institution went through that opening. What Canadian women discovered is that if you want to make change, you need to make it yourself.

Q: Can we ever improve women's lives there if we keep hands off culture and religion?

A: Keeping hands off culture and religion is wrong. We are so politically correct that we excuse criminal assault in the name of cultural relativity. Afghans never used to be so religiously strict. Their culture was a rich tapestry that was thousands of years old. What the fundamentalists are passing off as culture and religion in Afghanistan is foreign to the Afghans themselves.

Q: What have the biggest accomplishments been in the past few years?

A: There have been plenty of successes – an elected government, for one thing. The government has immense problems with corruption and inexperience, but it is democratically elected – that's a start. Six million children are in school, although five million are not, but that's another start.

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