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Veiled Threat: The Hidden Power of Afghan Women

by Sally Armstrong

In March 1997, Sally Armstrong flew to Pakistan as a journalist. She returned to Toronto an activist. Armstrong was researching an article about the treatment of women in Afghanistan under the Taliban for Homemaker’s magazine, where she was editor-in-chief at the time. After the article was written, Armstrong felt she had to do more to help. Veiled Threat is the timely culmination of that work.

Since Sept. 11, North Americans have become accustomed to hearing about human rights abuses under the Taliban government. But when Armstrong began exposing the issue, it was much less in vogue. Here Armstrong gives a compelling account of the women she met and their horrifying stories of rape, education denied, and manicured fingertips cut off.

These stories are most effective when the reader knows the victim’s background, circumstances, maybe even her name. Too often, though, Armstrong rattles off a list of abuses without providing the victim’s personal details. That technique may be acceptable in a space-limited magazine article, but the reader of a book deserves more. Armstrong does explore Afghan doctor Sima Samar’s tireless promotion of women’s rights. Because the reader learns Samar’s personal story, her life and personality resonates. Armstrong does provide a broader historical and religious background to the material, but these ideas and facts are similarily undeveloped.

The reader is rewarded with a happy ending of sorts. The Taliban have been driven from power, women’s rights are re-emerging, and Samar has been appointed minister of women’s affairs in the interim Afghan government. Armstrong herself has been appointed UNICEF Canada’s Special Representative to Afghanistan. She is now too close to the story to follow it as an objective journalist, but as a writer – and she is often a good one – Armstrong needs to animate these heart-wrenching stories with more context and emotion.