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The Making of a Revolution: Q&A With Sally Armstrong and Excerpt From Ascent of Women

"These girls have become our daughters. Their case is our case. The issues affecting women and girls today are all over the news—on the front page. Yes—we're winning. Big time."

Photo Credit: Avril Benoit

Ascent of Women tells the dramatic and empowering stories of change-makers and examines the stunning courage, tenacity and wit these women are using to alter the status quo. It is the story of a dawning of a new revolution, whose chapters are being written in mud-brick houses in Afghanistan; on Tehrir Square in Cairo; in the forests of the Congo, where women still hide from their attackers; and in a shelter in northern Kenya, where 160 girls between 3 and 17 are pursuing a historic court case against a government who did not protect them from rape.

Women revolutionaries in Toronto and Nairobi, Kabul and Caracas, New York City and Lahore are making history. Women the world over are marching to protest honour killing, polygamy, stoning and a dozen other religiously or culturally sanctified acts of violence. Sally Armstrong brings us these voices from the barricades, inspiring and brave.


49th Shelf Q&A with Sally Armstrong:

Kerry Clare: For your reader, it’s not immediately obvious that Ascent of Women is a good news story. Your book illustrates that women and girls are victimized, brutalized, and subjugated all over the world—hardly news to you after 25 years of reporting this news, but for the rest of us the effect is overwhelming. However, as you write in your book, “The earth is shifting.” What were your first indications of this shift? And is it difficult to be optimistic about the future in light of the formidable challenges that remain?

Sally Armstrong: First, I am very optimistic about the future because the earth IS shifting. Mostly that shift comes from education. Women are now asking the questions that alter the status quo. Questions such as—who says this is our culture. Show me where the Koran says "that." What's more, women—the world over—have started to talk to each other. That's the worst thing that ever happened to misogynists, fundamentalists, extremists.

KC: You document stories of women effecting tremendous change in their lives and in the communities around them. Of all of these, which would have seemed most unlikely or even impossible a decade or two ago?

SA: I think the story that gets me the most is the one about the 160 girls in Kenya who are suing their government for failing to protect them from being raped. That would NEVER have happened even five years ago.

KC: You refuse to accept the excuse that misogyny and violence against women can be excused for reasons of culture. And yet at the same time we’d like to believe that Canadians have become and are becoming more understanding of other cultures in recent years as our immigrant population grows. These two ideas aren’t mutually exclusive, but it still requires a delicate balance and a careful approach to address them. What are the most important things you’ve learned about this balance and approach in your work over the years?

SA: I'm not sure that "delicate" is the word I would use. We have been so careful, so politically correct, so willing to accept the other side of the coin. I think today it's important to expose the deceit, the duplicity and disgraceful impunity of men.

KC: What are you hoping that Canadian readers take away from your book? What can Canadian women learn from their international counterparts?

SA: I hope readers will see that the situation is changing everywhere. It's time for all of us to say, “No more” and to go to the barricades—and to claim our space.

KC: Throughout the book, you note the media’s lack of interest in the desperate plights of women around the world—the editor who “forgot” to follow up on the story of more than 20,000 Bosnian Muslim women gang-raped during the Balkan conflict, for example, and similar stories of stories of women’s lives “over there” not being relevant to the interests of Canadians. Has there been any change on this front? Is there a positive story to be told here as well?

SA: Absolutely—this is the best lesson of the book. Look at the story of Malala, look at the one about the young woman who was gang raped to death in India, the one about Sahar Gul in Afghanistan. The stories about these girls make the front page. The world doesn't let go. We used to look the other way. Not anymore. These girls have become our daughters. Their case is our case. The issues affecting women and girls today are all over the news—on the front page. Yes—we're winning. Big time.

Book Cover Ascent of Women

The Making of a Revolution: An Excerpt from Sally Armstrong's Ascent of Women

The earth is shifting. A new age is dawning. From Kabul and Cairo to Cape Town and New York, women are claiming their space at home, at work and in the public square. They are propelling changes so immense they’re likely to affect intractable issues such as poverty, interstate conflict, culture and religion, and the power brokers are finally listening.

The new wave of change isn’t about giving the “little woman” a fair shake or even about pushing reluctant regimes to adhere to hard-won international laws relating to women. It is based on the notion that the world can no longer afford to oppress half its population. The economist Jeffrey Sachs, spearheading the United Nations Millennium Development Project, claims that the status of women is directly related to the economy: where one is flourishing, so is the other; where one is in the ditch, so is the other. The World Bank asserts that if women and girls are treated fairly, the economy of a village will improve.

Those who monitor the state of the world’s women are speaking out as never before. There’s this, from Isabel Coleman, senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York: “Countries that oppress their women are doomed to be failed states.”

And this, from Farida Shaheed of Pakistan, United Nations independent expert for cultural rights: “More women are enjoying more rights and more spaces than ever before.”

And this: “Together men and women are the two wings of a bird—both wings have to be not wounded, not broken, in order to push the bird forward.” That’s from Sima Samar, chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.

And Canada’s Marilou McPhedran, director of the Institute for International Women’s Rights, says, “Change does not occur because we want it to occur or because it’s fair for a just society. Change occurs because people engage in the process.”

One of the most vocal leaders of the new age of women is Hillary Clinton, who has had plenty to say while U.S. secretary of state: “Recent history shows that agreements that exclude women and ignore their concerns usually fail. In country after country, we have seen women help push peace agreements to the finish line. Where women are excluded, too often the agreements that result are disconnected from ground-truth and less likely to be successful and enjoy popular support.”

Now, at last, is the time for women.

Most Western women thought that our time had come with the second wave of the women’s movement during the 1960s and ’70s (the first wave being the fight for the right to vote led by suffragettes in Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada more than half a century earlier). Although much was accomplished, the finish line when it came to equality still eluded many women in the West; in the rest of the world it remained a seemingly unattainable dream. Not anymore.

The catalysts of change today are women from the East as well as the West and Africa too. And they have powerful backing from mainstream economists, policy gurus and political figures who have realized that educating and otherwise advancing the opportunities and rights of women and girls is the way forward.

Two unlikely factors have contributed to the dawning of this new age: distortion and disease. The rise of Islamism in the late twentieth century spurred women in Asia and the Middle East to resist what they saw as the extremist hijacking of their religion. In Africa, the HIV/AIDS pandemic brought women together as never before when they realized they would die if they didn’t take action against the sexual improvidence of men. In the West, the information-based society that burst on the scene with the turn of the century moved a woman’s style of management into the mainstream: networks rather than hierarchies and shared leadership rather than top-down management became new touchstones in the corporate world.

And Facebook, Twitter, e-mail and blogging brought women the world over together. Women wearing jeans discovered that women in hijab were not subjugated, voiceless victims. Women wearing hijab found out that contrary to what the fundamentalists said, women in blue jeans were not whores and infidels. Together they learned that the impunity and power of opportunistic men was holding all of them back, hurting their children, making the future bleak. And they knew it was time for systemic change. Today, women are becoming a force so powerful that everyone from presidents to pollsters is beginning to see us in a new light—as the way to end poverty and conflict, as the means of improving the economy. It’s a change in attitude that centuries of women have worked toward.

A new cohort of savvy game-changers has emerged. They represent millions of women who’ve been trapped in religious dogma, suffocating in cultural contradictions. Until recently they had been bullied into silence by extremists who claim, “This is our culture, our religion and none of your business.” Now women have found their voices and told the rest of the world that itisour business, that cultural traditions are no excuse for criminal behaviour.

After a flurry of changes in the West in the sixties, seventies and eighties, it seemed that an unsettling quiet prevailed. Some said feminism was dead. But early into the 2000s the aspirations of young people in war-torn regions like Afghanistan and disease-ravaged Africa were bubbling beneath the surface. They wanted to shed the parts of the past that choked their dreams. Like participants in the women’s movement that had gone before, the new wave of young people challenged taboos. They tackled unmentionable topics such as female genital mutilation. They started asking questions that they had never asked before, about why men decided whether women would go to school, work outside the home, own property. The temperature rose and the lid on the pot began to rattle.

Young women began to sneer at old men with old customs. Women who hadn’t dared to speak up started denouncing cultural practices and bogus religious claims that had survived for centuries. The biggest fear for extremists, misogynists and chauvinists today is that women in Asia and Africa and the Americas are finding common ground.

In 2001, women the world over were riveted to the fate of the burka-clad women of Afghanistan who’d been denied education, jobs and health care under the Taliban. Ten years later, in 2011, there was Tahrir Square; once again women around the world cheered for their sisters who were helping to topple Egypt’s dictatorial regime. During the decade in between, Pakistan’s hated Hadood Ordinance, which demanded that a raped woman have four male witnesses to prove she didn’t cause the rape, were brought down; the personal status laws in Egypt that deny women rights in marriage were challenged for the first time; women in Kabul found the courage to march in the street; Liberian women surrounded the men at a peace conference and barricaded the building, saying they wouldn’t leave until a peace accord was struck and held a “sex strike” to make their point. In Swaziland grandmothers from twenty-five African countries plus Canada gathered to demand action and turn the tide on HIV/AIDS. In the United States in 2012, women finally spoke back to the religious right en masse in defence of Roe v. Wade, the court case that gave American women abortion rights in 1973. And in Canada, Aboriginal women, who had accused the government of failing to take action on the file of their missing and likely murdered sisters, aunts, daughters and mothers, called for outside help from the United Nations and got it, giving the government an embarrassing black eye.

None of these events would have happened without the change that women had begun to lead.

A major shift is the new commitment to the education of girls. For example, in Afghanistan the women refer to their illiteracy as being blind. When I asked them what they meant by that, one woman explained: “I couldn’t read, so I couldn’t see what was going on.” In fewer than a dozen words, she described a system that men in power have relied on—keep women uneducated so they won’t know what’s going on.

The upsurge in education is changing the way women and girls live their lives. In Saudi Arabia enrolment in primary and secondary schools for girls has been rising by 8.3 percent a year. The women who in 2011 and 2012 protested the ban against females’ driving were dentists and professors and IT specialists. These women and their daughters are no longer willing to ask permission of male guardians to move about freely on their own in their home country, travel abroad or have a medical procedure. What’s more, the birth rate in Saudi Arabia is falling to European levels, and customs such as marrying a first cousin are falling out of favour. Farida Shaheed says, “The more options women have, the less they are under the thumb of their husbands, fathers, priests and mullahs.”

The changes I describe in this book are not about women triumphing over men, Western values over Eastern or one religion over another. They’re aimed at solving the world’s most intractable problems—poverty, conflict and violence. This new manifesto for women is being written in mud-brick houses in Afghanistan and in Cairo’s Tahrir Square; in the forests of Congo even as women hide from roaming militias; and in a shelter in northern Kenya where 160 girls between the ages of three and seventeen have launched a precedent-setting lawsuit against their government for failing to protect them from rape.

Women revolutionaries and visionaries in cities and villages the world over are making history. Leading the way are women like Gloria Steinem, Hillary Clinton and Isobel Coleman from the United States; Sima Samar from Afghanistan; Farida Shaheed from Pakistan, Shirin Ebadi from Iran and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf from Liberia. The list of game-changers also includes Luz Méndez from Guatemala and Siphewe Hlope from Swaziland, Mary Eberts, Fiona Sampson and Margot Franssen from Canada, as well as women from every far-flung corner of the planet who have marched and petitioned and stood in solidarity to eradicate religiously or culturally sanctioned acts of violence against women and children.

Supporters are jumping on this bandwagon like born-again believers in the power of women. The philanthropist Bill Gates says, “The past decade has seen more progress against inequality than any of the previous five.” Doug Saunders, a columnist for The Globe and Mail, writes, “The most potent forces in the world right now . . . are all centred around the mythic figure of the teenage girl,” commenting on a study released by the charity Plan International, Because I’m a Girl, which recognizes that the fate of girls and young women is precisely the fate of their countries and communities. Britain’s royal family ended a thousand years of tradition in 2011 by reversing a primogeniture rule that favoured males for succession to the throne; females now have the same rights to the throne as men. The writer Naomi Wolfe says, “Once you educate women, democratic agitation is likely to accompany the cultural shift that follows.” And Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, author of the recently published examination of human violence,The Better Angels of Our Nature, states unequivocally that the world would be more peaceful if women were in charge. “Over the long sweep of history women have been and will be a pacifying force. Traditional war is a man’s game: Tribal women never band together to raid neighbouring villages.” For women, security means more than the absence of war. It means that they can get medical attention when they are giving birth; it means that their children can go to school safely. It means that they can farm the land without fear of land mines and find water without fear of being raped and killed on the path from the village to the well.

The United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 1325 on October 31, 2000—the first time the Security Council addressed the disproportionate and unique impact of armed conflict on women; recognized the undervalued and underutilized contributions that women make to conflict prevention, peacekeeping, conflict resolution and peace building and at the same time stressed the importance of women’s equal and full participation as active agents in peace and security. Nice words, but the fact is, more than a decade later, that women still have to fight their way to the negotiating table and are often not included. Says Hillary Clinton, “If we want to make progress toward settling the world’s most intractable conflicts, let’s enlist women.”

The idea isn’t new. A dozen years ago, in 2001, Jane Jacobs explained the far-reaching effects of well-managed economies and the vital role that women play in them in her book The Nature of Economies. Using the form of a platonic dialogue—a conversation over coffee among five fictional friends—Jacobs puts these words into the mouth of one of her characters: “This is why societies that are oppressive to women and contemptuous of their work are so backward economically. Half their populations, doing economically important kinds of work, such as cooking and food processing, cleaning and laundering, making garments and concocting home remedies, are excluded from taking initiatives to develop all that work—and nobody else does either. No wonder macho societies typically have pitiful, weak economies.”

Since Jacobs wrote that passage, the concept of improving the economy and reducing poverty and violence by empowering women has taken flight. It’s been a long time coming. The journey to get to this place has been a perilous one for women through thousands of years of oppression and trickery. Women were burned alive at the stake for daring to have opinions. They were beheaded for failing to produce a male heir. They suffered foot binding to create dainty, useless feet to please their men (so tiny, deformed and painful that they could barely walk, let alone run away). They continue to be subjected to female genital mutilation and honour killing and forced marriage. They’re still jailed for being raped in places like Afghanistan. Some clerics and religious leaders have described women as whores, harlots and jezebels; as brainless and even soulless. Women’s story of change is one of stunning courage, tenacity and wit.

Women such as Christine de Pizan were proclaiming women’s rights in the 1400s in France. Mary Wollstonecraft was doing the same in England in 1792 when she wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Between those historical points, Isabella of Castile, Elizabeth I of England, Christine of Sweden and Catherine the Great of Russia all reigned as monarchs, and each in her position embodied some form of female emancipation. Women led the bread riots in England and France in the 1500s, marched to protest the salt shortages in the colonies of New England in the 1700s and made sorties into the world of equality rights as long as four and five centuries ago. The suffragettes and the Famous Five from Canada agitated for change early in the twentieth century. And the beginning of the second wave of the feminist movement in the sixties made women such as Betty Friedan and Doris Anderson famous. Helen Reddy’s “I am woman, hear me roar” sounded like a call to arms when she first sang it in 1972. But in the past the gains women made were often modified, and women themselves were cast back into their historical roles as mother, wife, caregiver or temptress.

For the past five decades, the second wave of the women’s movement has struggled to alter the law, change the status quo and improve the lives of women. In a push-me, pull-you process, women have scored significant victories (writing gender equality into constitutions) and suffered serious losses (failing to get enough women elected to alter the culture of politics in Canada, the United States and the countries of the European Union). Even in places like Rwanda and Afghanistan, which have established quotas for women in parliament, there’s been an obdurate resistance to the ideas and goals that women bring to the table. But now the threads required for serious progress on human rights have started to weave themselves together into a tapestry of change. You want a better economy? Put the women to work. Your health system is lagging? Improve maternal and infant health care. War is your problem? Bring women to the negotiating table. Is poverty stubbornly stuck at unacceptable levels? Ask your women to make the budget.

It’s a sweeping generalization, but my experience writing about women in zones of conflict as well as in developing and developed countries tells me that women are more interested in fair policy than in power, in peace rather than a piece of the turf. And women leaders have long asserted that a sense of community is far more valuable than a sense of control. The information age is altering the grip of top-down power, giving rise to the less confrontational leadership style that women prefer. Gloria Steinem, who is perhaps the best-known contemporary feminist in the world, predicted that the switch would take time when she said a decade ago, “One day an army of grey-haired old women may quietly take over the world.”

As a journalist I have been telling women’s stories for twenty-five years. Until recently the oppression and abuse and second-class citizenship that we endured were seen as women’s immutable lot in life, dictated by culture and religion. Now that treatment is seen as symptomatic of a failed economy, the consequences of sidelining half of the world’s population.

Excerpted from Ascent of Women by Sally Armstrong, published by Random House of Canada Copyright © 2013 Sally Armstrong

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