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Authors: Sally Armstrong

Ascent of Women

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Bitter Roots, Tender Shoots
The Uncertain Fate of Afghanistan’s Women
Veiled Threat:
The Hidden Power of the Women of Afghanistan
The Nine Lives of Charlotte Taylor


Copyright © 2013 Sally Armstrong

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review. Published in 2013 by Random House Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. Distributed in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited.

Random House Canada and colophon are registered trademarks.

Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication

Armstrong, Sally
        Ascent of women / Sally Armstrong.

eISBN: 978-0-307-36261-2

        1. Women political activists—Biography. 2. Women—Social conditions—21st century. 3. Women—Economic conditions—21st century. 4. Social justice. 5. Human rights. 6. Leadership. I. Title.

HQ1236.A69 2013        305.42        C2012-902085-0

Cover design by Leah Springate

Cover images: Dreamstime


For Malala Yousafzai, who spoke up for girls’ education in Pakistan
“I want to say to the world that you must try to get education, because it is very important … it is also important that we should say ‘no’ to wrong. And if there is something going wrong we must have the confidence to say that this thing is going wrong, and we must raise our voice.”
And for everyone dedicated to making such education happen, and especially Sally Wales Goodrich (1942–2010)
A mother, mentor, friend and wife. Sally’s son was a passenger on the second plane to hit the World Trade Center on 9/11, yet she turned that evil into goodness, devoting the rest of her life to the education of Afghan students.


Other Books by This Author
Title Page

The Making of a Revolution

The Shame Isn’t Ours, It’s Yours

Scriptured Oppression

Cultural Contradictions


Breaking the Cycle of Poverty

The Ascent of Women

The Final Frontier

The Anatomy of Change

Here Come the Girls

Selected Bibliography
About the Author


The Making of a Revolution

he 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 it
our 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.

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