Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–Onlookers debated the sincerity and significance of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s calls this week for greater gender equality in the Middle East.

“There are those who say that democracy is for men alone,” Rice said during a seven-day trip through the Middle East and Europe that ended yesterday.

“In fact, the opposite is true: Half a democracy is not a democracy,” she continued. “As one Muslim woman leader has said, ‘Society is like a bird. It has two wings. And a bird cannot fly if one wing is broken.’ Across the Middle East, women are inspiring us all.”

The remarks were part of a larger speech on democracy and human rights, delivered Monday to an audience at The American University in Cairo.

While some saw the remarks as a signal of an enhanced commitment to women’s rights in the region, others interviewed by Women’s eNews saw them as convenient distractions from the administration’s struggling military engagements in the region.

Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of the progressive magazine, The Nation, questioned the administration’s commitment to women’s rights abroad at a time when it is seeking to limit women’s rights at home. “I think there’s rhetoric-reality gap in so much of what this administration does,” she said. “Democracy and women’s rights begin at home.”

Vanden Heuvel argued that the Bush administration has mounted an offensive against women’s rights in the United States–in areas ranging from education to reproductive rights to economic security–and can’t be trusted to promote women’s rights elsewhere in the world.

Isabel Coleman, a foreign policy analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank with offices in New York and Washington, D.C., had a decidedly different view. She saw Rice’s attention to women’s rights as significant, especially because Rice pointed aim squarely at its ally, Saudi Arabia, which denied women the right to vote in its recent municipal elections.

“The United States has tended to shy away from the subject at all,” she said. “The fact that she brought it up is positive.”

Reiterated Commitment

Rice reiterated her commitment to women’s rights during a press conference later that day with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal in Riyadh, the Saudi capital. Her trip also included stops in Ramallah, Jerusalem, Jordan, Brussels and finally London.

“The Saudi national dialogue and municipal elections were important events for the kingdom,” Rice told reporters. “And I note also that as this process goes forward, we who believe that democracy must have two hats, not one, will continue to hope for further progress on the rights of women.”

Naba Saleem Hamid is an Iraqi science professor at the University of Baghdad who is promoting Iraqi women’s rights this month on a U.S. tour sponsored by a women’s rights organization in Vienna, Virginia called Peace X Peace.

She and others said supportive comments from senior officials in the Bush administration will embolden feminists in the region. At the same time, U.S. commentary will bring coveted media attention to women’s rights campaigns operating in obscurity.

“For the countries where women face this inequality, it means initiative for them to think about it and to use it in their work to gain their rights,” said Naba Saleem Hamid.

Rice’s remarks were general and could have gone into specifics, calling, for example, for an end to restrictions on Saudi women’s clothing, employment, inheritances and drivers licenses, Madhavi Sunder, a professor of law and an expert on women’s rights in the Middle East at the University of California at Davis, said. Nonetheless, Sunder says, the remarks were important because they represent a break with advisers who say the United States should accept limited democracy at the expense of other values, such as gender equality.

Instead, Rice–and by extension, the administration–expressed disagreement with that line of thinking and appears to be pushing for a democracy founded on a set of fundamental principals, including women’s equality, Sunder said.

‘All Kinds of Skeptics’

“Sure, there are all kinds of skeptics,” said Fouad Ajami, director of the Middle East Studies Program at the John’s Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a prominent supporter of the administration’s war in Iraq. “But there is no doubt that one of the centerpieces of this new American diplomacy in this region is the question of the rights and liberties of Muslim women.”

Both Coleman and Ajami said Bush has championed equality of education and women’s suffrage in Iraq and Afghanistan and noted that the administration encouraged women’s participation in politics and elections in those two countries.

The risks inherent in Rice’s comments further underscore the administration’s commitment to the issue, added law professor Sunder. She said that in calling for equal rights, Rice opened up the United States to criticism from other governments over unfair treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Rice’s critique of its ally, Saudi Arabia, added credibility to the remarks, Coleman said.

She referred to a point in Rice’s speech when Rice recounted the image of a Saudi father who gave his ballot to his daughter so she could put it in the ballot box during the country’s recent municipal elections. “This small act of hope reveals one man’s dream for his daughter,” Rice said. “And he is not alone.”

Diversionary Tactic

Others saw Rice’s remarks as a tactic to divert attention from its controversial war in Iraq and what some suspect is a looming invasion of Iran.

Andrew Killgore, publisher of monthly magazine, the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, said Rice is merely taking part in the administration efforts to justify failed missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“The Bush White House has a line,” he said. “They’re all after democracy now after not finding weapons of mass destruction. And they’ve turned it into a war against terrorism and for democracy.” Rice’s comments in support of Arab women were mainly to talk about something that is non-controversial, Killgore said.

Rice’s tour follows a month in which female activists in Iran and Egypt gave rare public voice to their concerns.

In Iran, hundreds of women reportedly gathered in Tehran to protest a decision barring female candidates from running for president in the country’s June 17 elections. In Egypt, activists assembled in Cairo to protest the sexual harassment and assaults on women during earlier pro-democracy protests.

In Kuwait, Massouma al-Mubarak on June 20 became the first woman to serve in her country’s Cabinet, just one month after the country’s parliament granted women the right to vote and to run in national and local elections.

Allison Stevens is Washington Bureau Chief at Women’s eNews.

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U.S. Department of State–
Remarks at the American University in Cairo
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