Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Beacon No. 67: Walking a Mile in Their Abaya


Karen Hughes spoke on September 27 to an all-women audience at a university in Jidda, Saudi Arabia. Whereas audience participation at her Egypt stops went pretty well according to plan—mild, respectful, friendly comments given and received—some in the Jidda audience questioned the very underpinnings of the under secretary's "listening tour" in the Middle East.

Ms. Hughes ... is on her first trip to the Middle East. She seemed clearly taken aback as the women [in the audience] 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.

"We're not in any way barred from talking to the other sex," said Dr. Nada Jambi, a public health professor. "It's not an absolute wall."

The audience, composed of elite women in one of the Arabian Peninsula's more liberal cities, made several similar points, according to the Times' Steven R. Weisman. To her credit, Ms. Hughes "appeared to have left a favorable impression" by assuring the audience that she would "be glad to go back to the United States and talk about the Arab women I've met."

While the people planning the under secretary's events may have been mortified—Weisman notes that Karen Hughes "is considered one of the administration's most scripted and careful members"—I hope Ms. Hughes sees that this session is actually an excellent development for both the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.

Influential Saudi women may feel they have opened a channel to the Bush administration through a woman known worldwide to have the president's ear, while Ms. Hughes has experienced an audience that's not only not on the same page, but not even reading the same book. At the very least, despite a disconnection in Saudi and U.S. expectations going into the event, respectful disagreement took place rather than shouting.

The Jidda conversation was not so much about how the U.S. could better advocate its ideals and positions, but whether such advocacy is even considered necessary or good by the host country—and what happens after that.

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