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Author and activist Sally Armstrong, left, and Globe and Mail columnist Sarah Hampson
Author and activist Sally Armstrong, left, and Globe and Mail columnist Sarah Hampson

The Observers

A woman's power Add to ...

Sarah Hampson, Globe columnist: Hi Sally. I know that you have reported extensively on the plight of women in Afghanistan, so I am pleased to be corresponding with you on this subject. I have never been to Afghanistan. I have only read the stories; seen the videos; imagined the terror. My expertise on the matter is a pedestrian one - as an average Canadian citizen, as a woman, a mother, a daughter.

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When I watch the videos of these women on The Globe's website, I am struck by the fear. And I mean by that, not just the fear that the women themselves feel for their security, which is so troubling, but the fear, generally, about female sexuality. To see them hidden inside their burkas, behind their veils, holding, in some cases, their scarves up over their faces, I cannot help but think about the power of femininity - and why men feel that it is so important to control it, somehow. What is the power? Because of their beauty?

Certainly, looking at the women's eyes, especially those of the 15-year-old Sitara - how expressive and luminous they are - one gets a suggestion about the women's grace and mystery. (And that, ironically, is a comment on how the shrouding of sexuality often only serves to emphasize it - the covering of it acknowledges its power and fuels the imagination.) Is the power because woman can tempt men, provoke irrational response in them, diminish them somehow ? Is that what men fear? I know that this is part of the discussion in all fundamentalist religion.

I once interviewed a popular Christian singer in the States, a beautiful girl, who talked earnestly to me about how carefully she thinks about what to wear - show no cleavage, forget short skirts, tank tops, that sort of thing - because she understood that men are compromised by their visual attraction to women. It's not their fault, she insisted. It's just the way men, poor fellows, are wired. And women must protect men from their baser instincts by not flaunting their sexuality, she suggested. I always find this a bit funny, to be honest. I mean, hey, when Eve offered Adam the apple, he had the chance to say, "Listen, thanks a lot, Eve, for the offer, very nice and all, but no."

I wonder though if the power is also because women have the ability to have children, give life. Men, no matter how significant their accomplishments, no matter how smart they are and educated, will never know the stunning intelligence of the body that every mother has come to understand. I remember thinking, when I was pregnant with each of my three children, what a marvel my body was. I could be doing something simple - like putting together a few sentences - while it, meanwhile, was busy creating another life. I was making paragraphs. It was knitting together a brain. Pretty impressive.

This discussion about female power - which many women, even those of us in Western society, may not even be aware of - seems to be part of what is at play when I look at these frightened Afghan women.

Sally Armstrong, journalist: Hello Sarah. Your very interesting e-mail reminds me that there are as many opinions about emancipation as there are incidents around the women and girls of Afghanistan. In much of the world there is a bizarre duality that says women on the one hand are fragile creatures that need to be protected and on the other hand evil jezebels that society needs to be protected from. But I'm with you: Adam could have said, "No thanks."

As you know I spent time in Afghanistan during the Taliban regime and interviewed women in Kandahar at length several times during those years. The stunning piece of the story for me was and still is the centuries old impunity bestowed upon men who usurp women and girls as property and impeach them for their own sexual indiscretions. In Afghanistan, women are held responsible for a man's lack of sexual control. That simply has to change and it's the women - women like Rangina Hamida in this series - who are trying to turn this Titanic around.

Mind you, after a dozen years reporting from Afghanistan, I don't feel as discouraged as others about the recent events (although I sometimes think pessimism is in an Afghan's DNA). Change invariably takes a two-steps-forward, one-step-backwards path. Look at what happened here in Canada when women began asking for equality. Remember the first time wife assault was raised in the House of Commons in 1982, the members of parliament laughed. As for the Shiite law for women in Afghanistan, marital rape was legal in Canada until 1983. It takes time to change society. We've been at it since the Sixties; we aren't at the finish line yet.

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