- For people around the world, the United States is not
merely a country, and not merely a superpower. The United States is also
a symbol of human freedom.
- Because their country is a symbol, the way that American
officials behave is rarely taken at face value. Rather, their behavior
is interpreted and reinterpreted by friend and foe alike.
- Because she has no statutory power, the American First
Lady's actions are wholly symbolic. So when last week First Lady Laura
Bush embarked on a visit to the Persian Gulf to promote breast cancer awareness
in the Arab world as part of the US-Middle East Partnership for Breast
Cancer, she traveled there as a symbol. And the symbolic message that her
visit evoked is a deeply disturbing one.
- As a Washington Post report of her trip to Saudi Arabia
from last Thursday noted, there is a dire need in the kingdom to raise
public awareness of breast cancer and its treatments. Due to social taboos,
some 70 percent of breast cancer cases in Saudi Arabia are not reported
until the late stages of the disease. It is possible that the local media
attention that Mrs. Bush's visit aroused may work to save the lives of
women whose husbands will now permit them to be screened for the disease
and receive proper medical treatment for it in its early stages.
- And this is where the disturbing aspect of Mrs. Bush's
visit enters the picture. During her public appearances, the First Lady
limited her remarks to the issue of breast cancer awareness. Yet in the
Persian Gulf, it is impossible to separate the issue of breast cancer or
for that matter the very fact of the First Lady's visit from the issue
of the systematic mistreatment and oppression of women in the Saudi Arabia
specifically and throughout the Arab and Islamic worlds generally.
- IN THE context of the regional degradation of women,
while the consequences of Mrs. Bush's visit remain mixed, the overall effect
of her mission was negative.
- Women in Saudi Arabia do not have human rights. As Amnesty
International puts it, "The abuse of women's rights in Saudi Arabia
is not simply the unfortunate consequence of overzealous security forces
and religious police. It is the inevitable result of a state policy which
gives women fewer rights than men, which means that women face discrimination
in all walks of life and which allows men with authority to exercise their
power without any fear of being held to account for their actions."
- For instance, women in Saudi Arabia cannot choose whom
they marry and they have no real power to divorce their husbands. Men on
the other hand can lawfully marry up to four women and divorce any of them
simply by announcing that they have divorced them. And once women are divorced,
they are by law and practice denied custody of their children.
- Marital rape and physical abuse are not generally considered
crimes and therefore women have no legal recourse for dealing with abusive
husbands, or fathers or brothers. Since they are legally barred from serving
as lawyers, and Islam weighs a woman's court testimony as worth half the
testimony of a man, even if they were able to press charges against their
male tormentors, Saudi women are effectively denied recourse in the local
- Women of course are not the only victims of the Saudi
regime. Non-Muslims are denied the right to worship. Shi'ite Muslims' right
to worship is subject to draconian limitations. Jews are officially barred
from entering the kingdom. Then too, there are no real elections in Saudi
Arabia, no press freedom, no freedom of assembly. Yet even against this
totalitarian backdrop the position of women stands out in its severity.
- Take education for example. As the State Department's
2006 Human Rights report notes, there is little academic freedom in Saudi
Arabia. For instance, "The government prohibited the study of Freud,
Marx, Western music, and Western philosophy." Yet women's educational
opportunities are even more constrained. Due to gender apartheid, women
may only study in all female institutions. There they are prohibited from
studying fields like law and engineering and petroleum sciences. In 2005
the BBC reported, "Although women make up more than half of all graduates
from Saudi universities, they comprise only 5 percent of the kingdom's
- Saudi women have no freedom of movement. They may not
drive. And they may not move around in public unless escorted by their
husband, father or brother. Women found in public unescorted by suitable
males are subject to arrest and corporal punishment.
- The limitations placed on public appearances are mind
boggling. As Freedom House reported in 2005, "Visible and invisible
spatial boundaries also limit women's movement. Mosques, most ministries,
public streets, and food stalls (supermarkets not included) are male territory.
Furthermore, accommodations that are available for men are always superior
to those accessible to women, and public space, such as parks, zoos, museums,
libraries, or the national Jinadriyah Festival of Folklore and Culture,
is created for men, with only limited times allotted for women's visits."
- TO THE extent that women in Saudi Arabia are allowed
leave their homes, they are prohibited from actually being seen by anyone
through the rigid enforcement of Islamic dress codes. As the State Department
2006 report explains, "In public, a woman was expected to wear an
abaya (a black garment that covers the entire body) and also to cover her
head and hair. The religious police generally expected Muslim women to
cover their faces and non-Muslim women from other Asian and African countries
to comply more fully with local customs of dress than non-Muslim Western
women. During the year religious police admonished and harassed citizen
and noncitizen women who failed to wear an abaya and hair cover."
- Perhaps it is because it is so offensive to the Western
eye to see women covered like sacks of potatoes, the abaya has become a
symbol of Islamic oppression and degradation of women. Although outlawing
their use, as the French have attempted to do in recent years, is itself
a form of religious oppression, the sentiment informing their ban is certainly
understandable. The fact is that a free society should not be able to easily
stomach the notion that women should be encouraged, let alone obliged to
wear degrading garments that deny them the outward vestiges of their humanity
- Due to the fact that the abayas convey a symbolic message
of effective enslavement of women, Mrs. Bush's interaction with women clad
in abayas was the aspect of her trip most scrutinized. In the United Arab
Emirates, Mrs. Bush was photographed sitting between four women covered
head to toe in abayas while she was wearing regular clothes. The image
of Mrs. Bush sitting between four women who look like nothing more than
black piles of fabric couldn't have been more viscerally evocative and
consequently, symbolically meaningful.
- The image told the world that she - and America - is
free and humane while the hidden women of Arabia are enslaved and their
society is inhumane. But then Mrs. Bush went to Saudi Arabia and the symbolic
message of the previous day was superseded and lost when she donned an
abaya herself and had her picture taken with other abaya-clad women. The
symbolic message of those photographs also couldn't have been clearer.
By donning an abaya, Mrs. Bush symbolically accepted the legitimacy of
the system of subjugating women that the garment embodies, (or disembodies).
Understanding this, conservative media outlets in the US criticized her
- Sunday morning, Mrs. Bush sought to answer her critics
in an interview with Fox News. Unfortunately, her remarks compounded the
damage. Mrs. Bush said, "These women do not see covering as some sort
of subjugation of women, this group of women that I was with. That's their
culture. That's their tradition. That's a religious choice of theirs."
- It is true that this is their culture. And it is also
their tradition. But it is not their choice. Their culture and tradition
are predicated on denying them the choice of whether or not to wear a garment
that denies them their identity just as it denies them the right to make
any choices about their lives. The Saudi women's assertions of satisfaction
with their plight were no more credible than statements by hostages in
support of their captors.
- As the First Lady, Laura Bush is an American symbol.
By having her picture taken wearing an abaya in Saudi Arabia - the epicenter
of Islamic totalitarian misogyny - Mrs. Bush diminished that symbol. In
so doing, she weakened the causes of freedom and liberty which America
has fought since its founding to secure and defend at home and throughout