Laura Bush

CAIRO (WOMENSENEWS)–Women’s rights activists in the Middle East gave a mixed reception to First Lady Laura Bush’s visit to promote what she called American values, democracy and women’s rights in the region.

While many women’s rights activists welcomed Bush’s visit as a sign of support, others criticized the policies of her husband’s administration and expressed skepticism about her intentions.

The U.S. first lady came under heightened criticism after a national referendum on new election rules turned violent on Wednesday.

Bush drew the ire of Egyptian pro-democracy activists when she lauded President Hosni Mubarak’s steps towards democracy by allowing for the first time multi-candidate presidential elections. “You know that each step is a small step, that you can’t be quick. It’s not always wise to be,” she told reporters on Tuesday.

“What she said is really frustrating for most opposition forces in Egypt,” Gameela Ismail, wife of opposition leader Ayman Nour and a spokesperson for the al-Ghad Party, told Reuters.

Egyptians went to the polls Wednesday to vote on constitutional changes that would codify the multi-candidate changes, which opponents criticized as setting standards near impossible for most contenders to meet.

The referendum was marred when pro-government agents violently stormed into crowds of pro-democracy activists. Some Egyptian analysts speculated that Bush’s praise of President Mubarak as “bold” gave the government the green light to crack down on protesters.

Pro-democracy activists who were protesting the new rules were attacked by plain-clothes police in central Cairo. Reporters described repeated instances of plainclothes police groping female activists and journalists. At least two women had their clothes ripped off while police stood by and did nothing.

Revelations of U.S. Torture

Bush’s trip coincided with revelations of U.S. torture of prisoners in Afghanistan, stories of Koran desecration in Guantanamo, Cuba, and the continuing bloody struggle for control in Iraq.

The five-day visit to the Middle East, which ended Tuesday, included stops in Israel, Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinian territories.

At the World Economic Forum meeting in Jordan on Saturday, which opened with King Abdullah of Jordan discussing reform in the region, the first lady was greeted with an half empty hall as she addressed the gathering. Bush used her speech to call on Middle Eastern leaders to support women’s rights and congratulated Kuwait on finally allowing women to vote.

“Freedom, especially freedom for women, is more than the absence of oppression. It’s the right to speak and vote and worship freely,” Bush said.

Legal Inequities, Illiteracy, Fundamentalism

In many countries in the region, legal inequities make it more difficult for women to seek divorce, pass their citizenship on to their children and even in some countries, including Saudi Arabia, vote. Across the region, illiteracy rates are higher among females and women shoulder the burden of poverty at much higher rates than men. The rising tide of fundamentalism in the Middle East has further limited women’s abilities to express themselves and participate in public life.

During her two-day stop in Egypt, Bush met with Egyptian First Lady Suzanne Mubarak and a number of prominent Egyptian women. She also appeared with Mubarak on an Egyptian version of Sesame Street and concluded her trip to Egypt with a visit to the Alexandria Library. The Egyptian version of Sesame Street is partially funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and promotes education for girls.

Many women’s rights activists viewed Bush’s regional visit with skepticism.

“I think (the Bushes) need to take care of women’s rights at home first,” said Soraya Mekerta, an Algerian women’s rights activist and professor at Spelman College in Georgia. “Working families are homeless or don’t have insurance; elderly women are left alone.”

Soraya and other Arab, Muslim, and international women’s rights activists were recently in Cairo attending the International Conference of the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association, which closed on Monday. The three-day meeting, which boasted an international attendance of over 200 women and men, was organized by noted Egyptian feminist, writer and opposition figure Nawal El Saadawi.

In an interview, El Saadawi openly criticized the first lady’s visit. “She’s coming to propagate her husband’s policy for false democracy,” said the 76 year old, insisting that the U.S. president was only interested in giving lip service to democracy in the region.

“She and her husband only subtract from women’s rights. Before them Iraqi women had secular rights,” she said. She said the secular civil rights women had gained over the past 20 years in Iraq were being wiped out by the religious fundamentalists who have begun to wield power there.

El Saadawi is noted for her vociferous opposition to religious fundamentalism and Muslim women’s veiling, which she likens to “hot tents.”

Some female activists were glad to see Bush in the region. “We are extremely excited about Mrs. Bush’s visit to Egypt,” said Farkhonda Hassan, secretary general of the semi-official National Council for Women, an Egyptian women’s rights organization.

The council is headed by Suzanne Mubarak and focuses on issues such as literacy for young girls and mainstreaming women into the political process. Hassan, who was among the several prominent female intellectuals, businesswomen and female politicians that lunched with Bush and Mubarak on Monday, said the U.S. first lady was impressed by the accomplishments of Egyptian women in business, academia and encouraging women’s rights.

While acknowledging deep-seated problems with women’s rights in Egypt and the region, especially in the area of political representation, Hassan doubted that Bush’s visit would lead to concrete changes. Instead, she hoped that the trip would improve perceptions of Arab women back in the U.S.

“We hope that she would help us in presenting our real image, not the distorted image they have of us in America,” she told Women’s eNews.

Glaring Inequities

Bush’s visit to the region comes on the heels of two international reports which point out the glaring inequalities faced by Arab women.

The World Economic Forum released a report last week entitled “Women’s Empowerment: Measuring the Gender Gap,” which quantified inequity between the sexes in 58 countries around the world in five areas: economic participation, economic opportunity, political empowerment, educational attainment, health and well-being. The bottom four countries are Jordan, Pakistan, Turkey and Egypt.

“There is little doubt that traditional, deeply conservative attitudes regarding the role of women have made (Muslim countries’) integration into the world of public decision-making extremely difficult,” the report concluded.

Another report critical of the lack of women’s rights in the region by Washington-based Freedom House, also released at the meeting in Jordan, found women at a “profound disadvantage” in almost every institution of society.

Among other problems, the report pointed out that marriage and family laws were unequally tilted towards men, domestic violence was not always considered a crime in the region and governments and societies were lax in ensuring equal access to education for girls.

“Women have a fundamental role to play in the democratization of Middle Eastern societies. As pressure mounts for democratic change in the region, gender equality and women’s rights must necessarily be addressed and dealt with meaningfully,” said Freedom House Executive Director Jennifer Windsor in a press release.

Tariq Ahmed Elseewi is an Egyptian-American freelance writer who divides time between Cairo and Austin, Texas.

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