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Young women made gains against murderous odds

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It's not uncommon among today's feminists to debate exactly how much "the women's movement" has securely accomplished in the last 50 years.

Certainly, there are some signs that it has stalled (or been stalled) even in Canada, where the battle to end domestic violence, the sexual exploitation of women and inequity in the workplace seems endless. As well, few young women are aware of the severe restrictions they faced before "women's liberation" went to work on their behalf.

But in her latest work, Ascent of Women, Toronto author Sally Armstrong suggests that critics may be looking in the wrong places. Having travelled and worked in many of the world's most dangerous, least developed and most oppressive regions, she has come away with a collection of astonishing gains young women have made against murderous odds.

Armstrong is a much-lauded journalist, teacher and human rights activist, recognizable to many as the former editor of Homemaker's magazine.

She has been awarded the Order of Canada and is the author of, among others, the bestselling book Veiled Threat: The Hidden Power of the Women of Afghanistan (2008).

Ascent of Women travels even further afield, to Cairo, the Congo, Kenya, Bosnia, the Middle East and South America, and to the front lines of wars against rape, female genital mutilation, forced marriage, stoning, virginity tests and honour killing, to name just a few of the atrocities customarily visited on women.

Until recently, Armstrong writes, the oppression, abuse and second-class citizenship that women and girls endured were seen as their immutable lot in life, dictated by culture and religion.

Not any more. A new understanding is at last gaining ground: as long as women are sidelined, a country cannot possibly meet its potential for health, prosperity and peace. Or, as Jane Jacobs wrote over a decade ago, "Macho societies have pitiful, weak economies."

Armstrong first produced the stories in Ascent of Women as a radio documentary for CBC Radio 1's popular Ideas series. It was a short leap from there to a book.

In crisp and characteristic anecdotal style, Armstrong posits that two unlikely factors have moved the status of the Earth's most wretched and vulnerable women forward: distortion and disease.

She refers specifically to the rise of extreme Islamism and to the HIV/AIDS pandemic, explaining that in different areas of the developing world, Islamism has attempted to hijack women's religion, and AIDS has threatened to kill them, unless they were willing to confront the religious and sexual excesses of men.

An entire generation of women in Africa and the Middle East have responded to these crisis with the cry "You will not do to my daughter what you have done to me!"

It's a response mirrored in the struggle of Canada's aboriginal women for economic and social justice.

Armstrong also credits social media for the new wave of young, rebellious and persistent women determined to leave poverty and violence behind them. She points to the dismay of Egyptian women who were assaulted by men, some of them military, on International Women's Day 2011, just weeks after the demonstrations in Tahir Square.

Many of the stories in Ascent of Women have escaped the wider world's attention; Armstrong literally tramped through deserts and jungles to find them. The result is bound to shock; its details may make readers shudder and weep, but it will reignite hope in the most jaded of spirits.

Lesley Hughes is a Winnipeg writer who designed and taught the first course in women's studies in Western Canada at Red River College in 1970.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 16, 2013 J8

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