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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 they 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 courts.
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 workforce."
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 and individuality.
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 angrily.
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 the world.