Sally Armstrong’s Ascent of Women is an unflinching look at the brutality experienced by women around the world, and yet still manages to maintain an optimistic outlook. Armstrong’s primary thesis is that through education and the free exchange of information, women are changing the world at the grassroots level, and that this change will just keep happening.
Rather than stats and figures, Armstrong tells stories, personalizing for the reader horrific acts of violence and giving faces not only to victims but also to women around the world who are making change happen. Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and feminist icon Gloria Steinem are mentioned, but for the most part, Armstrong focuses on lesser known individuals, unsung heroines whose stories may not have been heard.
In a disturbing, yet probably all too common, account, Armstrong relates the story of Muslim women gang-raped by Serbian soldiers in Sarajevo. Since she worked for a magazine at the time, and wouldn’t be able to publish the story herself for another three months, she took her information to an editor of a newspaper. To her dismay, the story took almost two months to see publication, and was relegated to a four line blurb in Newsweek magazine. She confronted the editor, who admitted he forgot about it.
I was astounded. I said, “More than twenty thousand women were gang-raped, some of them eight years old, some of them eighty years old — and you forgot?” [p. 38]
This outrage, and this unwavering conviction in the importance of making sure that such stories are heard, fuels the rest of the book. In some ways, Armstrong says nothing new — many of us are already aware of the horrible injustices women face around the world, and whether or not we believe the current level of change is enough reason to be optimistic, we will likely not be convinced otherwise by Armstrong’s book. As well, Armstrong makes some assertions that aren’t sufficiently proven, in particular the argument that if women ruled the world, poverty and war will be alleviated. This seems rather simplistic, and reliant on stereotypes regarding female pacifism.
That being said, the strength of Armstrong’s book isn’t in her arguments but rather in her examples. These are tales that have been suppressed or, worse, ignored or forgotten, and Armstrong reports them in brutal, memorable detail. Take for example a school in Saudi Arabia where hundreds of young girls died in a fire because they weren’t allowed to escape without traditional head covering. Girls who somehow succeeded in getting out were forced back in because their heads were bare. There’s also a story about a woman who was raped and urinated upon by six men. Armstrong is unflinching in her portrayals, and we readers flinch in response. These accounts aren’t easy to read, but they reveal a reality many women face, and they should make us uncomfortable.
Armstrong does hold out a ray of hope that change is happening, with the assistance of education. She writes about a town in Africa where child marriage was legal and accepted — until a man took his 11-year-old niece out of class to marry her off. The niece’s school friends and teachers banded together to protest, and the town outlawed child marriages, making 16 the minimum age to give informed consent. Armstrong also writes about female circumcision in some villages in Africa — it was a widely accepted practice for years until a group of women held information sessions that exposed the horrific effects of this practice. Male villagers professed to being unaware of just how horrible the effects are, and while I find their claim of innocence suspect, the sessions worked, and female circumcision was outlawed in many of the villages.
Ascent of Women is a powerful read. Change is happening, one step at a time, and thanks to Armstrong’s book, we are a tad more aware of it.
Thanks to Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.