Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

27 Kislev 5766 - December 28, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Observations: Saudi Women Have a Message for the West: They Like Their Lifestyles
by Yated Ne'eman Staff

Karen P. Hughes, the under secretary of state for public diplomacy, is charged with spreading the American message in the Muslim world. She went on a tour of the Arab world. One audience she faced, 500 women covered in black at a Saudi university, seemed ideal for her pitch.

But the response was not what she and her aides expected. When Mrs. Hughes expressed the hope that Saudi women would be able to drive and vote so that they can "fully participate in society" as they do in the USA, many challenged her.

"The general image of the Arab woman is that she isn't happy," one audience member told the New York Times. "Well, we're all pretty happy."

The room, full of students, faculty members and some professionals, resounded with applause.

Many say they resent the American assumption that, given the chance, everyone would live like Americans. The group of women, picked by the university, represented the privileged elite of Saudi Arabia and the area is known as one of the more liberal areas in the country. While they were friendly toward Ms. Hughes, half a dozen who spoke up took issue with what she said.

The administration's efforts to publicize American ideals in the Muslim world have often run into such resistance. Ms. Hughes seemed clearly taken aback as the women told her that just because they were not allowed to vote or drive, that did not mean they were treated unfairly or imprisoned in their own homes.

As the session was ending Ms. Hughes, a longtime communications aide to President Bush, assured the women that she was impressed with what they had said and that she would take their message home. "I would be glad to go back to the United States and talk about the Arab women I've met," she said.

Ms. Hughes is the third appointee to head a program with a troubled past. A report issued in 2003 by a bipartisan panel chosen by the Bush administration portrayed a dire picture of American public diplomacy in the Arab and Muslim world.

Ms. Hughes has been in many meetings in which she has tirelessly introduced herself as "a mom," and explained that Americans are people of faith, and called for more cultural and educational exchanges. Her efforts to explain policies in Iraq and the Middle East have been polite and cautious.

In December, there was an armed attack on the American Consulate in Jidda leaving five people dead, and that meant that the Americans traveling with Ms. Hughes were cautioned against traveling alone in the city.

At the meeting with the Saudi women, television crews were barred and reporters were segregated according to gender. American officials said it was highly unusual for men to be allowed in the hall at all.

A meeting with leading editors, all men, featured more familiar complaints about what several said were American biases against the Palestinians, the incarceration of Muslims at Guantanamo Bay and the supposed American stereotype of Saudis as religious fanatics and extremists, after Sept. 11.

Ms. Hughes responded by reminding listeners that President Bush had supported the establishment of a Palestinian state and asserting that Guantanamo prisoners had been visited by the International Red Cross and retained the right to worship with their own Korans.

Americans, she said at one point, were beginning to understand Islam better but had been disappointed that some Muslim leaders had been "reticent" at first in criticizing the Sept. 11 attacks.

"Now, several years later, we're beginning to hear other voices," she said.

But it was the meeting with the women that was the most unpredictable, as Ms. Hughes found herself on the defensive simply by saying that she hoped women would be able to vote in future elections.

Several women said later that Americans failed to understand that their traditional society was embraced by men and women alike.

"There is more male chauvinism in my profession in Europe and America than in my country," said Dr. Siddiqa Kamal, an obstetrician and gynecologist who runs her own hospital.

"I don't want to drive a car," she said. "I worked hard for my medical degree. Why do I need a driver's license?"

"Women have more than equal rights," added her daughter, Dr. Fouzia Pasha, also an obstetrician and gynecologist, asserting that men have obligations accompanying their rights, and that women can go to court to hold them accountable.

Like some of her friends, one young Saudi woman said Westerners failed to appreciate the advantages of wearing the traditional black head-to-foot covering known as an abaya. "I love my abaya," she explained. "It's convenient and it can be very fashionable."


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