The New York Times reports that Karen Hughes, now “under secretary of state for public diplomacy,” recently spoke to a group of Saudi women about her desires for women’s rights in the Arab world. According to the Times, when “Ms. Hughes expressed the hope here that Saudi women would be able to drive and ‘fully participate in society’ much as they do in her country, many challenged her.”
“The general image of the Arab woman is that she isn’t happy,” one audience member said. “Well, we’re all pretty happy.” The room, full of students, faculty members and some professionals, resounded with applause.
. . .
“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.”
. . .
A woman in the audience then charged that under President Bush the United States had become “a right wing country” and that criticism by the press was “not allowed.”
. . .
“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, Ms. Sabbagh 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.”
This sentence appeared early in the article, but I’ve added the emphasis: “The group of women on Tuesday, picked by the university, represented the privileged elite of this Red Sea coastal city, known as one of the more liberal areas in the country.” Yet the article’s author chirps on about how “many in this region say they resent the American assumption that, given the chance, everyone would live like Americans” and 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.”
Question: you’re a journalist at the Times and you face the dilemma of two competing narratives with which to cast your story. On the one hand, you can take the feminist angle and explore the obvious possibility that these women, seemingly so happy about their restrictions, might just be Saudi government stooges. On the other hand, you can take the multi-cultural, America-is-chauvinistic angle, about how the bumbling Bush administration just doesn’t understand the Arab world–it thinks it’s helping them when they’re just fine, thank you very much. How does a good liberal choose?
Answer: what was that about the Bush administration?