Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Could the bad news about women be good?

     When Sally Armstrong's book "Uprising: A New Age is Dawning for Every Mother's Daughter" first crossed my desk, I looked at that subtitle—"A New Age?" Really?—and tossed it on the free pile. But a friend raved about it, and her, so I got another copy, actually opened the cover this time and started to read, and found the book impressive and provocative.

     Hundreds of girls in Nigeria are kidnapped by insurgents. In Eastern Europe, women are raped as a strategy of war. An NFL star slugs his wife in a jarring video.
     Women worldwide fight for basic rights — to drive, to go to school. Meanwhile, 130 million young women in 28 countries have been sexually mutilated in crude religious rituals, with 6,000 added every day. Taken together, you might easily think that the rights of women are ebbing.
     You’d be wrong, according to Canadian journalist Sally Armstrong, who travels the world reporting on women’s issues and sees this pervasive bad news about women in a different light: as good, in that it represents events historically left in the shadows now being dragged out into the light to wither.
     “None of this stuff came to light before,” Armstrong said.
     Those kidnapped girls? Note that troops including U.S. advisers are looking for them.
     “No military has ever gone anywhere to rescue girls, ever in history,” she said. “Obama checked off a box never checked off before. Message: Girls count.”
     Armstrong and I had lunch recently to talk about her new book, “Uprising: A New Age is Dawning for Every Mother’s Daughter.” The book begins in dramatic fashion:
     “The earth is shifting. A new age is dawning. From Kabul and Cairo to Cape Town and New York, women are claiming their space at home, at work, and in the public square. They are propelling changes so immense, they’re likely to affect intractable issues such as poverty, interstate conflict, culture, and religion, and the power brokers are finally listening.”
Bold words. But Armstrong backs them up, pointing out that the very elements that would seem to undermine women, such as AIDS or the rise of radical Islam, instead are mobilizing them, with a key assist from pervasive social media.
     "Women wearing blue jeans discovered that women in hijabs were not subjugated, voiceless victims," she writes. "Women wearing hijabs found out that contrary to what the fundamentalists said, women in blue jeans were not whores and infidels."
      If you admired the chiasmus of that, you'll appreciate the sharp writing in the book, just as Armstrong, in person, has none of the eat-your-peas dreariness often afflicting those concerned with international issues. She seems to have come through witnessing the starkest abuses with good humor intact.
     The stories are indeed thrilling. Khadia, 10, is yanked from class by her uncle in a village in Senegal, on her way to a forced marriage with a 22-year-old cousin. The school leaps to her defense, with girls besieging the chief's office. Enter the media - heroes, for once - and suddenly Khadia is back in class. In Kenya, 160 girls sue the government for not protecting them from rape - and win.
     In Armstrong's view, the way nations conduct themselves will change as women take an even greater role on the world stage.
     "I'm not saying women know better than men — women know different than men," she said, "and society doesn't work well when half the population is kept under."
      To play devil's advocate, I wonder whether the book leans too heavily on U.N. resolutions of dubious value and stunts like Eve Ensler's One Billion Rising, which had women around the globe dancing for their rights. Good PR, but a "revolution?" Really?
     To Armstrong's credit, she doesn't sugarcoat the bad news. "Rape is on the rise," she notes. A quarter of the girls in Kenya between 12 and 24 lose their virginity to rape.
     But the general tone of "Uprising" is positive, almost celebratory. Could this progress be a blip, until society returns to old habits?
     In her book, Armstrong says "No."
      "I believe the shift in thinking about the role of women and the issues that women deal with in the first decade of the third millennium will go down in history as a turning point for civilization," she writes.
      Again, bold words. But bold words and bold deeds by women have helped drag the world toward a less cruel, more humane civilization since we were all hunter/gatherers. There's no reason to suspect this process will stop. The genie of freedom, once released, never goes back into the bottle.
     We equate hard news with bad news. Often they go hand in hand. But Armstrong has seen the worst and finds it encouraging.
     "It is a very optimistic book," she agreed. "That's why I wrote it. In 25 years of reporting on what happened to women in zones of conflict, I suddenly realized the earth was shifting. At first I thought I was being wistful. Then I realized, Holy smokes! This is really happening.' It's exciting, really exciting."


  1. Armstrong said: “No military has ever gone anywhere to rescue girls, ever in history”

    I don't believe that & I'm sure someone who knows military history far, far better than me will write about those times.

    1. Why don't you believe that Clark and, given your self-proclaimed lack of knowledge to the contrary, why don't you find out first, or even try to, before registering a proudly uninformed opinion? It seems sort of squishy, and we discourage squishiness around here.

    2. There wasn't a damn thing squishy about it.
      Armstrong made a truly bizarre comment that is contradicted by individual women rescued over the years & it's logical that there have been rescues of larger groups.
      As for my asking for someone with far more knowledge of military affairs over the centuries, tell me? Just what do I search for on google?
      There's nothing wrong with claiming you don't know everything, or don't you know that?
      Because I tried & every search result is hopelessly

    3. No, of course not. No need to question your unproven assumptions and pause by your lack of finding any corroboration in the factual world. Better to shift the argument, to the military undoubtedly helping an "individual" woman at some point, which is not what she was talking about, but the government -- she mentioned Obama -- sending the military after girls. Now, if you're like everybody else, you re-state your original position, in even stronger terms, or stalk off. Which is too bad. I'm frequently wrong and try to admit it, which permits growth. A rare blessing, I know.

    4. You are the professional writer, I'm not.
      But I'll try to put it more simply: She is claiming a negative, that it never, ever happened & there's no way she can prove it.

    5. There's no way to prove man never went to the moon before 1969 either. You're saying it's such a wild claim that it has to be impossible. Maybe because you're an optimist at heart. I'm saying, it sounds right to me. If you're so sure, scrape up some proof. If not, consider a meditative silence.


  2. Chiasmus?" I vaguely knew it was a term from rhetoric, but still had to look it up. Not complaining. I know the 'good writing' books say you should shun exotic words, but nevertheless welcome being driven to my Webster's Unabridged from time to time.

    1. I looked it up too. Does anyone use good writing books? Exotic words are appropriate when no other word conveys the meaning, and if there is a word that refers to the "Ask not what your country can do for you but ask what you can do for your country" balance, I don't know it. I used the word because I believe you should call a spade a spade -- a reference to garden implements that goes back to Roman times, by the way.

  3. Holiday gifts for the nieces, thank you.

  4. Sorry to be such a nag, Neil, but once again, how about captions for the swell photos? I'm guessing they're from the Bristol Renaissance Faire, since IIRC, you attended that not too long ago, but I fear that there are many readers who will just assume they're from a Steinberg family reunion. ; )

    1. No Jakash, you're right. I was being scrupulous about it for a while, then fell away. Just another step in what is a multi-step, endless daily process. I figured, when people asked I'd tell them. Yes, RenFaire, not this year, but 2013. This year I went, but the light was wrong, and none of my photos came out. Also I think I was having too much fun to take many pictures.

  5. Your photographs at the top of your blogs/columns are stunning. I agree with Jakash that caption would be welcome.

  6. Back on the topic of big words, you're entirely right that some unusual words are the only ones available to do the job. But beyond that, the English language has been assembled over the centuries from at least three other lingos, giving it a wonderfully large vocabulary which it seems a shame not to exploit from time to time. And the occasional exotic can shine like a bright jewel in a plain setting in a line of poetry.

    "Whenas in silks my Julia goes
    Then, then metinks how sweetly flows
    The liquifaction of her clothes"

    1. And some words just need to be more common. I used "revanchist" a lot to describe the Right Wing -- the political belief in regaining lost ground, or going back to the past. It's perfect.

  7. I recall some time ago a British Army press officer throwing the press corps into a state of befuddlement by using the useful term "nugatory" to describe an action taken to negligible effect. But I understand that to him, with his Oxford (or Sandhurst) education it came naturally. Coming from someone else, or in a different context, it might be just showing off.

  8. It's sad that anything that hints at education is equated with bragging. It's frustrating, you read a book, you want to mention it to someone,and suddenly you're showing off. In my column on railway safety week tomorrow, I quote Lord Byron. Those are actually the lines that go through my head. I memorized them when I was 17. Sure, it makes me a weirdo -- that's the conclusion of the column. But you gotta be who you are. That's why so many writers are bad writers -- they're trying to be someone they're not.


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