Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of November 25, 2002
Break bread and take off a burka
Yes, you can help free terrorized Afghan women
By SUZANNE ELSTON
The first thing I noticed about Sally Armstrong was how remarkably tall she was. As a regular reader of Homemaker's magazine, I had seen her face many times on the editorial page.
As its editor-in-chief, Sally had transformed that "cute little magazine filled with recipes" into a powerful editorial voice. Over the years, that voice has told stories that nobody else seemed to be writing about - child prostitution in Bangladesh, wife assault and most notably, the women of Afghanistan.
It was on this subject that I heard Armstrong speak in Toronto earlier this month. She was the guest speaker at the Ruth Cooperstock Memorial Lecture. The annual lecture honours the work of Cooperstock - a pioneering researcher and scientist who focused on the effect of prescription drugs on women's health.
Armstrong's story began in Afghanistan, shortly after the Taliban seized power in 1996. Armstrong had travelled to the country in order to give witness to the plight of the Afghani women, who under Taliban rule were unable to work, attend school, or even be seen in public without the protective covering of the burka.
I found it hard to imagine how this tall, elegant blonde woman managed to survive in a country where a woman can have her fingers cut off for the simple crime of wearing nail polish in public. When I asked Armstrong if she ever felt that her life was in danger, she said,
"Are you kidding? My life was always in danger," as if it was the most natural thing in the world to travel halfway around the globe and risk your life to tell someone else's story. Armstrong drew strength from firm conviction that acts committed in the name of culture or religion are neither.
"But if no one can talk about it, no one can change it," she said, which is precisely why even since the fall of the Taliban, Armstrong has continue to travel to Afghanistan, where progress on women's rights is painfully slow. '"Now is the time to give voice to their silent screams."
"What's happening in Afghanistan right now will have an extraordinary impact on the entire region," she said. If the fundamentalist point of view wins out, then the future of all women in the region is in peril.
Armstrong reminded us that the aid promised to Afghanistan by the international community hasn't been delivered. She's worried that as international attention shifts toward Iraq, the ongoing human rights violations that are a daily way of life in Afghanistan will be forgotten.
The message is clear. If you can get away with house arrest, murder and sexual harassment then women's issues don't matter after all. Armstrong admits that it's hard to wade into battle, but as she tells it, the term innocent bystander is an oxymoron.
"Apathy is evil," she said, "Individuals who want to serve their souls are obliged to serve their community, otherwise they are living half-lives, half-heartedly."
She added, "Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence, and yet it is needed to make the change."
But change is coming, thanks to the extraordinary efforts of Sally Armstrong and the women that she has inspired. When she first wrote about the Afghani women for Homemaker's in 1996, the article generated thousands of letters of support and spawned a grassroots movement within Canada to help support Afghan women. Armstrong proudly tells the story of one such group, Women for Women in Afghanistan and the Breaking Bread project.
"The concept is simple," she explained. "Host a pot-luck dinner for nine of your friends and have each of them bring along a cheque for $75." Each supper raises $750 - enough money to pay the salary of a teacher for one year in Afghanistan.
Since leaving Homemaker's in 1999, Armstrong has continued to give voice to those who cannot speak for themselves. Earlier this year, Penguin Books published Armstrong's book, Veiled Threat: The Hidden Power of the Women of Afghanistan. Her latest documentary, The Daughters of Afghanistan will air on CBC television later this fall.
Recommended websites:For step-by-step instructions on how to host a potluck dinner, visit www.breakingbreadforwomen.com. Please note, 100 per cent of funds raised are used to finance Afghan women's literacy programs and are tax receiptable. Cheques should be made out to Rights & Democracy and mailed to: Women for Women in Afghanistan P.O. Box 32014 Bankview Calgary T2T 5X6.
For more information about Women for Women in Afghanistan, go to www.w4wafghan.ca.
For more information about Veiled Threat: The Hidden Power of the Women of Afghanistan check out Penguin Books at www.penguin.ca.
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