September 28, 2005
Sexy Arab Abaya Women, Assumptions: US Public Diplomacy in KSA
Returning to a subject more or less dear to 'Aqoul, women in the Arab world, for a moment, I wanted to draw attention to this intriguing article from the visit by US public diplomacy director Karen Hughes to Saudi Arabia: Saudi Women Have Message for U.S. Envoy
Let me first say little in the article was surprising to me (including Ms. Hughes surprise that the "Sisters" did not look at their cultural heritage and mores in the same light as she expected), but it is a useful one for reflexion. Thus some comments on the article:
Update: The Financial Times also has this story. Better done actually.
Saudi Women Have Message for U.S. Envoy
By STEVEN R. WEISMAN
Published: September 28, 2005
JIDDA, Saudi Arabia, Sept. 27 - The audience - 500 women covered in black at a Saudi university - seemed an ideal place for Karen P. Hughes, a senior Bush administration official charged with spreading the American message in the Muslim world, to make her pitch.
Karen P. Hughes, the under secretary of state for public diplomacy, was hired to publicize American ideals in the Muslim world.
But the response on Tuesday was not what she and her aides expected. 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.
Among the sillier things that I see all the time is the reflexive presumption among Westerners that everyone wants to live as they do, and further forgetting that where Western women are today was a process that indeed took a century or more of change and included opposition from traditionalist minded women as well.
Abstracting away from what is ideally correct and the like, blanket assumptions based on superficial information are not a great way to make progress. The Westernized liberals are already convinced, the remainder of the population may have different values. It may be my bias as an economist by training and classic liberal by instinct, but I do not much favour social hectoring and rather think changing the underlying economics will be the real change driver for a more liberal society (although in the Arab Muslim core, whatever real liberalism - not the faux play to the sucker Westerners libaralism or the naive self duping kind - emerges is not likely to be the same as in the European West, any more than Japan's is.), not idiotic "women's rights" and "democratisation" blithering on by foreigners with little real clue as to regional social norms and values.
"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.
The administration's efforts to publicize American ideals in the Muslim world have often run into such resistance. For that reason, Ms. Hughes, who is considered one of the administration's most scripted and careful members, was hired specifically for the task.
Many in this region say they resent the American assumption that, given the chance, everyone would live like Americans.
On the last: Well. Yes.
Natural of course, but unhelpful.
The group of women, 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. And while they were certainly friendly toward Ms. Hughes, half a dozen who spoke up took issue with what she said.
Ms. Hughes, the under secretary of state for public diplomacy, is on her first trip to the Middle East. She 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.
"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 session at Dar Al-Hekma College provided an unusual departure from the carefully staged events in a tour that began Sunday in Egypt.
As it 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.
My question is really, how much did she absorb.
Insofar as these things almost always mean meeting the usual more liberal than 99 percent of the population, I take a rather jaundiced view of what US diplos (or others for that matter) really learn. It's almost always as if an Arab diplo went to New York and met the chic international elite of Manhattan and based his views of American society off of that.
Perhaps better than nothing, but not bloody accurate.
Ms. Hughes is the third appointee to head a program with a troubled past. The first, Charlotte Beers, a Madison Avenue executive, produced a promotional video about Muslims in America that was rejected by some Arab nations and scoffed at by a number of State Department colleagues. Her successor, Margaret D. Tutwiler, a former State Department spokeswoman, lasted barely five months. 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, on this first foray, has churned through meetings in which she has tirelessly introduced herself as "a mom," 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.
Well, expected start.
At the meeting with the Saudi women, television crews were barred and reporters were segregated according to sex. 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 Guantánamo 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 Guantánamo 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.
Hmmmm. The usual diplo talk.
Again, the items from the women's meeting, however discussable, are more interesting:
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.
In June, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice talked of democracy and freedom in the Middle East but declined to address the question of driving. By contrast, Ms. Hughes spoke personally, saying that driving a car was "an important part of my freedom."
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."
"I have to say I sometimes wish that were the case, but it's not," Ms. Hughes said with a laugh.
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.
Ms. Hughes appeared to have left a favorable impression. "She's open to people's opinions," said Nour al-Sabbagh, a 21-year-old student in special education. "She's trying to understand."
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."
On the last point, true enough. The 'abaya itself is nothing to get bent out of shape about. I personally do not care for the all out ninja garb that the neo-Salafi whackos prefer, but an 'abaya with hijab is hardly oppressive. And as anyone who's seen enough Gulfies knows, the stylish can be down right slinky in the gear.
Not that is a sign of anything in particular....
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Wish I said first. Thanks, Col. But I would have said it without any f-words.
Wait....You didnt use any. Imposter.
Pretty much a big problem as alot of the westernized Arabs (and some of my best friends are...) dont like to hear this either and deny it or diminish its importance.
But you have it right, social liberalization follows economic liberalization and empowerment.
In some sense, Saudi Arabia might be considered among the most socialist states around, considering that the great bulk of the wealth is in government hands.
Posted by: matthew hogan at September 28, 2005 01:07 PM
I must say whenever I read these articles, I am reminded of well-to-do Victorian ladies saying how super their lives are, with French governesses and Parisienne frocks and society parties and balls, despite the lack of suffrage and property rights.
And without a thought for 13-year-old Mabel Crouch slaving away in the scullery, Widow Byegood and her ten starving children in a hovel at the edge of the estate, and the tailor's teenage daughter forced to marry 60-something libertine Squire Briggs because her family are too poor to afford pay the doctor's bills for her ailing mother.
Posted by: secretdubai at September 29, 2005 08:16 AM
I think, secretdubai, that you're looking at it the wrong way. The issue isn't that the elite Saudi women are happy in their little worlds where they have drivers to take them around anywhere etc etc. without a care for the less fortunate That of course might be and is in a lot of cases true. But the issue here whether Saudi women, whether rich or middle class or poor, would admit that they would like to drive or vote in front of Karen Hughes or some other outsider. The answer is no, at least not without first defending their society and culture, which is what seems to be happening here. See my own post on this issue: http://saqr.blogspot.com/2005/09/to-drive-or-not-to-drive-that-is-not.html for a similar comment.
Posted by: Ali at September 29, 2005 04:06 PM
Yes, because if you read this or other articles (perhaps the FT) one can see that many women said in private that they wanted to drive and vote. But it was clear they wanted to make clear it was not going to be an outside, and especially American, initiative.
Posted by: matthew hogan at September 29, 2005 08:57 PM
Yes, exactly Ali. And Karen Hughes is not exactly the right person to be getting past that defensiveness and cultural solidarity. And of course the problem of facing up to the consequences of saying you agree with her (which speaks to the actual empowerment problem more than anything).
"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?"
Heh, but driving is fun! It's daily commuting that sucks.
Posted by: zurn at September 30, 2005 11:14 AM
Ali has this largely right although in reference to his post and comments that, I rather do think the East versus West communications etc angle is rather overdone.
Structurally you see the same kind of outsider-insider response in lots of situation. One need only look at how Southern Americans react to the snobbery (not necessarily misplaced snobbery mind you) of New Yorkers regarding their culture, or the obession in the American right with "Intellectual Elites" and the like to see a rather similar kind of response.
No, this is not really East versus West; except insofar as Arab and especially Eastern Arab tribal culture is not particularly keen on direct criticism.
Posted by: lounsbury at September 30, 2005 01:23 PM
Lounsbury, I don't think I meant to say this was exclusively and East v. West phenomenon. My comment here and more specifically the post on my own blog was meant to address this particular case, as well as extend it to the general Arab-Islamic context, and then pose the question whether it is true that an impossibility of cultural understanding applies between any two civilizations.
This is very much an epistemological question as it is an empirical anthropological one.
Posted by: Ali at October 1, 2005 08:34 PM
Well, I find such abstractions mere intellectual wanking really, so I leave it to you who use the word epistemological in all seriousness.
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