On Wednesday night, I went to hear Sally Armstrong speak. She’s a human rights activist and award-winning journalist who has worked in Afghanistan and sub-Saharan Africa for several decades. She came to talk about women’s rights, which is her passion and main area of work. As many of you know, this is right up my alley, too.
Sally told stories about changes that are happening in Afghanistan, Kenya, and Swaziland. In all the years she’s been covering stories relating to women, she’s never seen so many changes happening as quickly as they are in the past two years. This is because of social media, which has made the world smaller. Eastern women in hijabs and Western women in jeans are realizing that we’re the same, despite cultural differences, and news of injustices (think of Malala’s recent shooting) spreads like wildfire and outrages the entire world. Before Facebook, Twitter, and blogs, events like these were either unknown or ignored.
I really appreciated Sally’s emphasis on men’s treatment of women in Afghan and African cultures as being criminal, not cultural. It’s so easy to say, “Oh, that’s just the messed-up way they do things over there,” but the women of those cultures are furious and tired of it. Men treat women as sub-standard citizens because they’re old and scared to relinquish power. (Sounds like my recent post on the Vatican’s refusal to ordinate women.) Most refreshing was to learn that 67% of Afghanistan’s population is under 30; that country is going to change because most of the young people don’t want violence and antiquated cultural rules that subjugate half the population.
Sally told horrific stories, yet they were imbued with strong hope. A landmark court case has just begun in Kenya that will redefine the status of women in Africa: 160 little girls between the ages of 3 and 15 are suing the government for failing to protect them from rape, rape that happens because their father, grandfathers, and teachers think that raping children will cure them of HIV/AIDS. The most disgusting part is their belief that the younger the child, the stronger the cure. And now these girls are standing up to centuries of abuse and trauma, determined to fight for their right to dignity because they know they don’t have to live that way.
What resonated most with me was her discussion of philosopher Hannah Oren’s quest to understand good and evil. After years of study, Oren concluded that apathy is evil. To be an innocent bystander is an oxymoron, that by not taking action one often enables evil to continue and grow. Moral courage is one of the hardest traits to possess; yet it’s what makes change happen in this world. Those young Kenyan girls – uneducated, impoverished, emotionally damaged – have true moral courage in their quest for justice.
Sally’s talk left me feeling horribly inadequate and even a bit envious, because hers is a life I once envisioned for myself. What can a young stay-at-home mom like me to do help the plight of women around the world? I can’t jump on a plane and start blogging about the women I meet in dangerous places, as much as I’d love to. For the time being, I’ll just have to stand up for what I believe from the perspective of my Canadian home. Thanks to the Internet, words can travel globally, even if I can’t.