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A Time for Women: Discussions with Author Sally Armstrong

Women’s rights protest in Egypt.

By Emily Rivas

Image courtesy of Al Jazeera Creative Commons Repository via Wikimedia Commons

The world today is not a hospitable place for women, but times are changing.

We see women fighting for their education in the Middle East, women fighting against gang rape in India, young girls in Kenya protesting because their government is failing to protect them and First Nations women in Canada calling for change against abuse.

“We are reading about it because the world is upset, and that’s good news,” says journalist and author, Sally Armstrong.

This is what Armstrong spoke about in front of the woman-dominated audience that filled a dim room with an intimate atmosphere, in the lower level of the Drake Hotel on March 6. In dialogue with NOW magazine’s senior entertainment editor, Susan G. Cole, Armstrong is part of the NOW talk series that the magazine has been hosting.

During their discussion, Armstrong discussed the launch of her newest book, The Ascent of Women. In her book, Armstrong talks about how women around the world are taking control of their own bodies and the dangerous, courageous journey that women face in fighting rape, sexism, violence and abuse.

In 1992, Armstrong ventured to Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, to write about the effect the war was having on children living in a city under siege from the Yugoslav People’s Army. Soon after arriving there, however, she discovered rape camps where up to 20,000 women from the age of eight to 80 were being gang-raped. Upon finding out this information, she sent it out to news organizations, believing it would be a front-page news story, but they put it aside. Armstrong took it into her own hands to write it and ended up winning a plethora of awards for it.

“Why did no one want to write the story? Because it was about women,” said Armstrong.

As a Western woman reporting other cultures, Armstrong has experienced others telling her that Westerners should not impose their values. However, she believes that when it comes to genital mutilation and honour killings, culture has nothing to do with it.

“It is my business because that’s not cultural,” said Armstrong. “You think human rights are Western?”

What is challenging society to move forward are the years of tradition and the mentality of older generations that is difficult to remove.

The New Delhi gang rape could be seen as the tip of the iceberg on their sexual assault problem. Last year, there were 635 rape cases brought to court and only one of the accused in all of those cases was convicted. This one moment of this 23-year-old woman being raped on the bus was a catalyst- enraging women all around the world.

Armstrong says that in India, people use the topics of shame and family loyalty against what is seen as taboo, such as husbands raping wives, sexual assault on the street and acid attacks.

This is changing because women in grass roots movements are now seizing their moment, however.

In Kenya, 160 girls protested against their government for failing to protect women. The law states that men cannot be arrested for abusing a girl because they are young and female. In parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, men carry a theory that sex with younger girls can cure them of AIDS. With the help of Canadian female lawyers, the girls took the case to court and won, climbing over its gates with victory.

In Afghanistan, we have Fawzia Koofi running for presidency in a male-dominated society, with her focus on human rights-especially women and children’s rights.

Armstrong has also seen young men now becoming involved with women’s marches in the Arab Spring.

“You think girls’ education is Western? Then what is Eastern?” is what young girls in Afghanistan said to Armstrong.

Though change is constantly happening, there is much more in our world that needs to be dealt with.

“We are the UN. We make up the UN,” said Armstrong when asked what the United Nations can do to assist with women’s problems around the world. “What they do comes from us.” M

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