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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

Are we really getting behind the burka? Add to ...

Read the previous day's exchange

Sally Armstrong, journalist: Good morning Sarah. Women like Shukufa in today's instalment give me reason to cheer. She's like many of the women I've met in Afghanistan, even during the "Taliban time," as they call it, who against all odds find their way into civil society. And she represents other women in Kandahar, which surely is the heart of darkness in Afghanistan today, who are working as teachers, embroiderers, soap makers, civil servants and professionals.

There is a piece of all of these interviews that intrigues me. I'm never quite certain about the message the women and girls are delivering. Shukufa, for example, says she took this job because she was poor and needed work. But now she loves it. Others say they work because their husbands are "open-minded." I sometimes get the impression the women are answering the questions by saying what is expected of them rather than what they think. There's an expression in Afghanistan that translated says, "I can't answer your question because my mouth is full of water." It means, "I can't tell you the truth because someone may be hurt or get into trouble."

I think if The Globe reporters could have conducted these interviews, we would have had more interesting dialogue. What do you think?

Sarah Hampson, Globe columnist: Interesting point, Sally. When women are devalued, would they value their own feelings? Would they say what's on their mind, when many have been encouraged not to think for themselves? I'm not sure it would matter who conducted the interviews, frankly. Some women speak with candour - saying that brides are treated like slaves doesn't sound like a careful statement. But I agree that others respond with bromides. And in the circumstances of the video interviews, they seem nervous and sometimes a bit suspicious of why they are being asked these questions at all. It made me wonder how hard it was to get ten women to speak.

On a separate note, I have to say that today, I feel disheartened again about the struggles of women in Afghanistan after reading the story and watching the video. It is such a rollercoaster of emotion this series. One day I read something that gives me hope. (Yesterday, the idea that education for girls and opportunities for women can happen when elders see they are not a threat to the culture and the family.) And the next, like today, girls being d oused with acid on their way to school? And women who endanger their lives by going to work - like the embroiderers or Shukufa, the 19-year-old police woman - but have no choice because they are poor?

I once interviewed Khorshied Samad, wife of Omar Samad, the former Afghanistan ambassador to Canada. Born and raised in California, she had gone to Afghanistan, where her father was from, after 9/11 to work for a news outlet. That's where she met her husband. She wept a little when she spoke of the strength and hope of the Afghan people, and the women especially. Don't give up on us, she said. The country's history of strife is heart-breaking, and there is a need for the international community to prevent another power vacuum, to give the country a chance to get back on its feet.

I mention this because one of the things I have been thinking about is the average Afghan's sense of his or her country and nation. What do they articulate it as? What binds them to their country? Or do they just not have a choice about whether to stay or get out of there?

Sally: Your comment about an Afghan's sense of nation is important. Although every warrior known to history, from Alexander the Great, Darius the First and Genghis Khan to the Brits and the Russians, have all taken a run at Afghanistan, the Afghan people have an extraordinary sense of who they are. Even the constant warring between the six major tribes hasn't altered the mother-country devotion.

I can give you an example that connects today's video about education to the sense of nation that I think the people have. You probably know about the Canadian initiative called Breaking Bread for Women. It's a potluck supper where everyone writes a cheque at the end of the night with the intention of raising $750 - the annual salary of a teacher in Afghanistan. The program took off like a grass fire when it started about seven years ago and presently there are more than 50,000 little girls in school in Afghanistan because Canadians - tennis clubs, bridge clubs, teachers, nurses, neighbourhoods - get together to have these potluck parties.

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