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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

The perils of feminist angst Add to ...

Read the previous day's exchange

Sally Armstrong, journalist: Hi Sarah. False eyelashes? Poor little rich girls? What goes on here? The plight of the women of Afghanistan is not about being so rich that you're not allowed to go out and be exposed to the wide world. It's also not about how hard your daily life is: The average Afghan family has seven children - no matter how you cut it, that's a lot of laundry, cooking, negotiating and dawn to dark work.

What their lives are about is Hamidi's throw-away line in today's instalment . She speaks of "the ugly, cultural, negative and backward customs." Never mind who these horrific habits are carried out by, she's referring to tribal law, forced marriages, child marriages (when nine-year-olds are betrothed to 65-year-olds) and the ritualistic abuse of women. All of it is brutal, illegal and it simply has to stop. This clinging to a primitive past is what's holding the entire country back. I wonder why the international community dismisses this as none of our business.

Over to you.

Sarah Hampson, Globe columnist: The story of the plight of Afghan women reads like a feminist's nightmare. But that, I think, can easily become part of the problem: that we can fall into the trap of projecting our own feminist angst onto the lives of women half a world away. I am not saying that we shouldn't pay attention or try to help. The resolutions in the Afghan constitution about equality between the sexes are important. (And the tragedy is they do not seem to be making much difference.)

But we can get sidelined in the discussion if we are simply worrying over the fact that the mothers have to do all the laundry and the cooking and work, outside of the home, if they should be so lucky as to have "open-minded" husbands who let them venture out to an office as Suhaila, the 39-year-old mother of five, can. Even in good ol' Canada, there are many mothers and wives who complain of the same "household conditions," if you will. And it's always dangerous to talk about women who are "wasting" their lives because they are stuck indoors, having babies and cleaning. As my colleague, Jessica Leeder, writes in today's story, the women who are wealthy enough not to have to work do not see their lives as bad. That is where feminist projection can be a waste of time and energy.

We should not be judging the content of other women's lives - that is what makes Western feminism so internecine and counter-productive - we should be trying to ensure that they have the choice to be educated. That's where the expression and loss of hope in the child bride, Sitara, 15, who talks about men seeing women as no more than slaves, just breaks my heart.

How can these resolutions for equal rights be enforced?

Sally: When I first started covering this story in the fall of 1996, I did some self-censoring - reminded myself that projecting our own lifestyles on the lives of other women is a mistake. But as time went on I realized the story wasn't about that at all. It's about ancient customs that brutalize women and girls and presumptions that defy explanation.You ask how equal rights can be enforced. Consider one of the best-known tribal laws called " bad."

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