Taking on the Taliban

Taking on the Taliban McGill University

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Home > McGill News > 2002 > Spring 2002 > Taking on the Taliban

Taking on the Taliban

Taking on the Taliban

Author, editor, filmmaker and reporter Sally Armstrong, BEd'66, has made a career out of fighting for a better world. A journalist "by accident," she has reported on everything from teen suicide to ethnic cleansing, and was one of the first to file stories from Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover in 1996. Her articles, drawing attention to the abuses of that oppressive regime, have earned her awards and a new job with the United Nations.

Sally Armstrong, former editor of Homemaker's magazine and current editor-at-large for Chatelaine, is wearing an ankle-length gray winter coat with a big black shawl covering her head and shoulders.

She is definitely not making a fashion statement. Rather, she is trying to get back into Afghanistan after an absence of four years and this is the garb she and her guide have decided should satisfy Taliban restrictions on women's dress. It is, you see, winter 2001, half a year before the terrorist attacks of September 11, and a time when the Taliban, their repressive regime, and Osama bin Laden are still on the periphery of the world's concerns.

Armstrong tries to tuck her very blonde hair under the shawl while keeping her hands covered. She's not wearing a burka, those voluminous pleated garments with mesh to see through, because, as her guide explains, only Afghan women have the "right" to wear them. Nor is she allowed to speak directly to the young Taliban guard who sits in an earthen-floored shepherd's hut at the Pakistani border and who will decide if she's allowed into the country. As she reports in her Chatelaine article, "I am invisible. Because I am a woman, I have no status, no rights."

Nevertheless she succeeds in getting the proper papers because the stated reason for her trip is to visit an orthopedic clinic in Kandahar funded by Canadians where victims of Afghanistan's long conflicts -- and of laws requiring amputation of a hand or a foot as punishment for theft -- are fitted with prosthetic devices. It is estimated that there are 700,000 disabled citizens and as many as 10,000,000 buried landmines in Afghanistan.

She talks to people, making the most of what contact she's allowed. After several days in Kandahar, she crosses the border into Pakistan to visit camps filled by refugees driven out by the Taliban. She obviously is upset by the way the Taliban have outlawed a long list of things, from singing to television, even kite flying. Life expectancy in Afghanistan has dropped to 40 years.

Photo Sally Armstrong chats with an audience member after giving a talk in Montreal last November
PHOTO: Owen Egan

But it's the plight of women and children which fires her deepest anger. What little education there is, is limited to religious instruction and denied to girls entirely. Women cannot work, are forced to dress in shrouds and live behind painted-over windows, and may be sentenced to death by stoning if they appear in public with a man who is not a family member. "The bottom line is this," she reports, "things are not getting better for women in Afghanistan. They are, in fact, getting worse."

She gets the story, writes it up for Chatelaine and drums up the pressure at a time when the world's attention is focused elsewhere.

Since September 11, there has been a lot of talk about how the world has changed, but life for Sally Armstrong really hasn't. In November, she was back in an even more unstable Afghanistan, this time as the UNICEF Canada special representative. She was to report on how the Afghan people -- especially the children -- were faring as winter began and the U.S. bombardment continued.

She returned to Canada for the holidays and rushed to finish Veiled Threat, a book about women in Afghanistan which she has been researching for five years. Once the book is launched (it's due out in April), she'll be going back to report on how the Afghans are doing as they attempt to rebuild their shattered country.

All this is the logical -- if rather surprising -- next step in a life which began quite conventionally in Montreal and which now shines as an example of what someone with courage and conviction can accomplish.

"I didn't start out aiming for a career in journalism," Armstrong says. "But I always had examples of what women could do: we had a family friend who was a physician and I greatly admired Jeanne Sauvé, the journalist who became Governor General. Initially, my way of rebelling was to become a phys-ed teacher." She laughs, a big and charming laugh that goes with her personality.

After growing up in middle class neighbourhoods in Montreal, she got her first teaching diploma from Macdonald College in 1962 when she was 19. Then came a BEd from McGill four years later, followed by a stint teaching high school in Quebec and Ontario. She married her sweetheart from Mac, Ross Armstrong, in 1967, and had three babies in quick succession. Heather, 32, is now assistant vice president at Rogers AT&T Communication; Peter, 29, is a CBC Radio reporter; and Anna, 26, is doing a master's in England on human rights theory and practice. The marriage also was a success: 32 years together cut short only when Ross was killed in a car crash two years ago.

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