Sally Armstrong #38

portrait by Avril Benoit

portrait by Avril Benoit

Author of Uprising, Journalist, Order of Canada, Amnesty Award Winner


It’s almost like the last stand or the last gasp for these misogynists to say we are in charge. They can see the rest of the world is onto the hideous behavior they use in order to keep women repressed.   




Interview by Heidi Legg

The other night I got a late night text from my friend Alison Packard who was on call at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) waiting to deliver babies. She urged me to come and hear Sally Armstrong, Canada’s version of Christian Amanpour meets Gloria Steinem. Sally and my older sister are old friends so I have heard about the incredible Sally Armstrong for a very long time.

I arrived at MGH the next morning to find a jam-packed room of doctors who have focussed their careers on women’s health. These doctors spend every day listening and treating women in one of the best hospitals in the world, and they sat riveted listening to Sally talk about the stories in her new book, Uprising. 

An author and Amnesty-award winning journalist who has stood up to the Taliban’s view of women, there is no mincing of words and no hesitation when she speaks. Her views are clear. She believes the earth is shifting under the status of women. "We’re reaching a tipping point when age-old oppression is seen as harmful to the economy and the health of the community and the opposite - emancipation - is seen as the route to prosperity."

In her eyes, this shift means a better economy, reduced poverty, and a cut in conflict. Her research in Uprising: A New Age is Dawning for Every Mother's Daughter, claims that women from Nairobi to New York and Kabul to Cairo are powering changes so immense everyone from presidents to pollsters see them as the way forward. A typical take from Armstrong: the kidnapping crisis in Nigeria is not only about missing girls - it's an historical first. It’s the first time in history that any military or government has ever gone anywhere to rescue girls. “When Obama said he was sending strategic advisors to Nigeria, he checked off a box in the history books that has been empty until now. The message is – girls count and education is paramount.” Armed with stats and figures on how women rising improves the economy and reduces poverty, Armstrong stands up to dictators, oppressors, and North Americans who refuse to change. They call her the war correspondent for women, La Talibanista. Mother of three, widowed too soon, and putting women in the spotlight around the world — Sheryl and Hillary might want to have her on speed dial. I sat down with Armstrong to hear how and why she believes this change is happening now and why she thinks the Nigerian girls story represents this shift.

Why aren’t we finding these girls? Why is it taking so long?

The UK, the US, China Israel and others are on this. Frankly, I thought they’d have those girls in 48-hours. Of course they found them, they have drones for heavens sakes but what happened is that a Nigerian officer under pressure from an angry crowd blurted out, ‘Yes, we know where they are but we can’t get them out until we can ensure their safety.’ I can bet you that a British officer was six-feet from the guy ready to wring his neck for having blown the cover because now getting the girls will mean negotiating with Boko Haram (which means ‘Western education is forbidden’ in the regional Hausa language.)

How can you be so hopeful when so many negative stories have emerged?

I can tell you something is happening right now for women. And to me it is a double-edged sword. It’s very worrisome on one hand and very telling on the other. Two weeks ago, the largest women’s center in Sudan was shut down by the government. Six outstanding women human rights activists in Egypt were arrested in Cairo. And in Libya, the leading woman human rights activist was assassinated. All three events happened in about 48 hours. Is this because the extremists are coming together and saying these women are really starting to make strides? Or is this coincidental? 

My guess is that the extremists are very much in touch with each other and worried that women are making unprecedented strides and, as a result, they’ve taken this bold action. It’s almost like the last stand or the last gasp for these misogynists to say, ‘we are in charge.’ Now when honor killings, murders, beatings happen they make the front pages of the newspapers and that must be driving the fundamentalists crazy. They can see the rest of the world is onto the hideous behavior they use in order to keep women repressed.

In my opinion, they know they are losing the battle and these three ghastly actions several countries apart, within 48 hours, are a sign of the misogynists’ desperation. Now of course the blogosphere is wild with how to get the six women out of prison in Cairo and reopen the women’s center in Sudan, and how to respond to the Libyan government for failing to protect the activist who was murdered.

And what about the Nigerian girls? How can we help?

Action. When people rise up, things change. The question I would ask is: Where are the religious leaders? Where is the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia? Why is he not speaking out? What does he have to say to Boko Haram? Does he not want to protect Islam from the slander Boko Haram is staining the religion with? (Sheik Abdulaziz Al al-Sheikh, the top cleric in Saudi Arabia did condemn Boko Haram on May 9th as reported by the Guardian but has not spoken out since.)

The Grand Mufti in Saudi Arabia has a very big reputation. Where is his voice? Why is he allowing the kidnapping of young girls? Why is he not speaking out against those who deny a girl an education? The Koran does not deny a girl education? Where are the voices of the leaders who can speak to the extremists?

If the Grand Mufti were to get up again and say to these extremists, ‘what you are doing is wrong. I am ashamed of your actions,’ I wonder what effect that would have.

We saw the #BringBackOurGirls go viral. Now a video has emerged with Boko Haram mocking it. It's hard to feel we are making an impact. How are you measuring this uprising of women?

Girls have been kidnapped, assaulted, taken out to the forest forever and ever and initially even their families didn't have the nerve to raise the issue because the family would then become the target of the thugs in power that did it. Now, not only are the families speaking out, but the world is listening. I feel it’s because attitudes toward girls and women has shifted.

The Malala Yousafzai story is the epitome of the shift. We would never have heard the Malala story three years ago. Now Malala has become the world's daughter. The story of Jyoti Singh who died after being brutally gang-raped in India has ripped the lid off fifty years of secrecy in India. Now, the women in India are on the stage marching. Now, they're going to make change and this is the difference today. 

The story of those young girls in Nigeria is such a disgrace. How can we look the other way in the face of such terror? Can you imagine what's happening to those kids right now? And what if it was my daughter or my sister? I mean, we have the ability to take action - if they dried up the oil patch, we'd be on this, but they've stolen a bunch of girls. We need to make sure the international initiative to rescue them is effective.

What drove you to write this book?

I've been covering zones of conflict for twenty-five years and my beat is to find out what happens to women and girls in these places. 

About three years ago, I began to feel the earth was shifting under the status of women. At first I thought maybe it was wishful thinking on my part because, believe me, I haven't had a good news story to tell in twenty-five-years. But then I did the research and I found out I was right. I couldn't get that research together fast enough to get it into a book. I wanted to be the first person to say, 'the pendulum is moving. Women are approaching a tipping point. Now is the hour.'

When did you know you were on to something?

A couple of things were happening and they were things that had never happened before. For example, 160 little girls in Kenya between the ages of three and seventeen were suing their government for failing to protect them from being raped.

This is unheard of. The case made news all over the place. People said, ‘if those kids win this case, they're going to alter the status of women and girls in Kenya and maybe all of Africa.’ What’s happening today is women are talking and if you can't talk about it, you can't change it.  All of a sudden it's like somebody has ripped the muzzle off and everybody's talking.

The questions that are coming up should've been asked decades ago, maybe even hundreds of years ago. Women are saying, 'show me where it's written in the Koran that my daughter can't go to school. Oh, it's not there. It's not written. Show me where it's written I can't go to work. That's not there either.'

Women are starting to find out that their lives have been curbed by cultural contradictions and religious dogma that really has no basis in fact, and the result is they're turning things around.

Look at the women in Senegal who were sitting in a health class talking about the fortune of money they have to spend to have doctors fix what's wrong with them as adults because of what was done to them when they were little girls. Female genital mutilation, they call it 'female genital cutting' or ‘excision’ in Senegal, had never, ever been discussed. The women went to the imam and said, 'why do we do this?' and he said, 'it's our religion.' They said, 'where in the holy book is it written?' They couldn't find it and, in fact, it's practiced by Muslims, Christians, and even one Jewish sect in Ethiopia. Nobody talked about this before.  The women asked, ‘Well, if it's not in our religion, why do we do it?’ They said it must be cultural so they went to see the village chief and he said, 'oh, yes, it's our culture' and they wisely and courageously said, 'why would we have something in our culture that is so harmful to us?' and they stopped it. They took a public pledge and that's the trick.

You can't make any of these changes on your own. You have to go as a group because otherwise you'll be ostracized. You can't wash with the others or eat with the others or go to school with the others but when you take a public pledge, then it happens. That's how most major change in society has come about.  These women said, 'Never again. Not my daughter.'

Who are your allies?

The women are my allies. When I first covered Afghanistan, as soon as the Taliban took over, the women said to me, 'ask the women in Canada to be our voice. We have no voice. Someone has to speak for us.’ They helped me wherever I needed to go to get the story.

In Kandahar during the Taliban regime the women told me they had to paint their windows black. They showed me these blackened windows because the Taliban didn't want anyone to see them. They had to wear wedge shoes because the Taliban didn't like the tap-tap-tap of a woman's high heel. I mean, they had these draconian, ghastly, Dark Ages’ rules for these women and the women wanted the world to know what was happening to them.

At great risk, they shared it with me but once we had this channel going, then they were the ones that would say, 'we'll get you here' or 'we'll show you the way to get there' or 'we'll send word to so-and-so to expect you' in another village.

There are also spectacular women around the world who have been fighting for these issues for a long time and they're even more vocal. Hillary Clinton would be the first on the list. Farida Shaheed from Lahor, Pakistan is another one. She is the Cultural Rapporteur for the United Nations and a fantastic woman involved with Women Living Under Muslim law. Shaheed’s first words as the Cultural Rapporteur? ‘If your culture oppresses women, change it.’ Doctor Sima Samar in Afghanistan is also incredibly courageous and she’s been a target of the Taliban forever. Now, she's the chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. She's taken them all on – the fundamentalist, the extremists, the misogynists.

Who supports them?

Certainly other women backers around the world. I remember when the Taliban were overthrown and DR. Samar came back to Kabul, she was in great danger because the fundamentalist wanted her ideas about women and human rights squashed, women around the world literally came to her aid. Cell phones were new – women chipped in and got her one so she could be safer. She is outspoken and she’s gutsy. She takes no guff from anybody and she's a hero to the women in Afghanistan. My book Uprising is full of these women in other countries and in North America who have said 'enough.'

What span of years does your book cover?

I do go all the way back to 1992, to cover a story about the gang raping of women in Bosnia and Croatia because I need to show how that story captured nobody's interest at the beginning. I was the first one to write about it and it wasn't because I was smarter than the other journalists. It was because the others weren't interested in writing about it.

I need to show how today that story would be on everybody's front page as soon as it was reported. The other stories I cover in the books are more recent. Imagine Young Women for Change marching on the streets in Kabul saying, 'we've had it. We're not doing this anymore. You have to change the emotional landscape of Afghanistan.'

The uprising is happening. Look at what happened in the United States with the fiasco around Komen’s For The Cure last year when they decided they wouldn't fund Planned Parenthood. Literally overnight women on campuses in the United States found t-shirts to wear to support Planned Parenthood. Judy Blume was tweeting about it immediately. The mayor of New York said, 'I'll give you $250,000 and I'll match every other dollar that comes in.' I mean, this is talkback and now that we have talkback, we make change much faster. These are examples of women rising up. These are examples of how change is being made today.

I wrote the book because this is happening everywhere. It's not just happening in New York. It's not just happening in Nairobi with these 160 girls who sued their government for failing to protect them from being raped, and won. It's happening throughout Africa, throughout Asia. It's happening where it didn't happen before.

Why are you compelled to tell this story?

I've been doing this job for twenty-five years. I'm a journalist who covers conflict and I feel exceptionally fortunate that I get to go to these places and be the eyewitness for the people that cannot go there. That these women will share their stories with me… You know you're taking a chance when you tell somebody your story and I feel very humbled by the way these women share their stories with me and then point me to the other one. They say, 'You know, my sister lives in such and such and go and talk to her.'

I'm thrilled to see this change. Frankly, I didn't think I'd see this change in my career lifetime. Believe me, I am not unaware of the horrors that continue to go on and my book contains some of those because without them I wouldn't have told the whole truth.

There are truths coming out today that should've come out fifty years ago but because the earth has shifted, now we can hear them and now people have the nerve to produce them. For example, there is an academic book called The Sexual Assault of Jewish Women During the Holocaust. Honestly, it burns your fingers to turn the pages in this book. It is a horrendous accounting and perhaps the worst of it all is that the judges at Nuremburg said, 'we will not cover this. We don't want our courtrooms full of bawling women.' Is that not appalling? Isn’t it incredible that it didn't come out? That book came out in 2012. If we had known would it have altered the way we saw Congo and Rwanda and Darfur and these other places? Why didn't we tell these things? Why did we whisper behind our hands? Why did we know these things but we never said? Now we're saying. That's the difference.

Why in these modern days are these things still hidden?

Because we had no permission. It was considered impolite. It was not nice for company. Charlotte Bunch, the brilliant women who started the Center for Women's Global Leadership at Rutgers University said, 'it's high time women went to the Thanksgiving table and said, 'I refuse to sit down with my cousin who's beating his wife.'' You know, we don't do those things because it's so upsetting but until we do it, we don't stop it, and now young women are ready to do this. They're ready to make it stop.

Economists claim the economy improves with the emancipation of women. Jeffrey Sachs says the status of women and the economy are directly related. Where one is flourishing, so is the other. Where one's in the ditch, so is the other. You knew that to be true two decades ago but when Sachs says it, it gets traction around the world. Thugs would prefer to make more money, even if it meant they had to allow women to vote. 

What public opinion do you want to change?

There is public opinion that gives you the impression that you should not upset the status quo, but this topic is so important and it is the only way to change it and only the people themselves can change it.

It's time for the public to stand up and say, 'it's not okay with me that you treat your women like that and I don't care what country you're king of or what country you come from or how big a business deal you’re trying to negotiate. Say that to the King of Saudi Arabia. Say that to the Prime Minister of Canada. Say that the President of the United States. Say that to the Taliban. It's not okay to treat your women like that. Public opinion is swinging that way – we can alter the economy, we can cut poverty, we can reduce conflict. There's tons of evidence to say this is what will happen when women are freed from this incredible oppression they've carried for centuries.

How can we help?

Use your voice. Some people think, 'I'm not rich. I'm not famous. I'm not powerful. What can I do? I can't change anything. I can't make a difference. I'm only one person,' but you can make a difference if you simply speak out against it. I've wrecked a few dinner parties in my life by speaking out. You simply say, 'it's not okay with me that they treat their women like that' and in doing so you plant a seed and people think twice about dismissing it. When people say, 'oh, they've always treated their women like this. There's nothing I can do about it.' Well, there is something you can do about it. You can speak out. In fact, if I was being really bold, I would ask why we trade with people who treat their women like that. Do we need the oil in Saudi Arabia so badly that we dare not speak up and say, 'if you treat your women like that, we're not available.' Or to Nigeria, 'you don't take action when 200 little girls get hauled off into the forest to be made into sex slaves?' Well, here's what we're going to do to retaliate. 

We don't do that sort of thing because commerce tends to be more important than human rights, but that's what we need to do if we really want to make change.

And here at home - what can we do to end domestic violence?

You know who can change that? The men. In Afghanistan and Egypt, I noticed the young men and the young women are working together to make change. They said to me, 'we'll never get to the finish line if we don't walk together.' They're very wise. We don’t do that here. What we need here is for the men to stand up and say, 'don’t you speak that way about my sister or my daughter or my mother or my relative.' You can't stop things until you let people know that it’s unacceptable to behave in that way. 

Where do you get your news?

I'm a news junkie. I'm plugged into news all the time.

What event are you looking forward to?

I'm doing a number of speeches in San Diego, in Chicago, in Florida, and I'm very excited about them because they involve large groups of women who are change makers. I know it's preaching to the converted.