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.
"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 group of women on Tuesday, 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.
The article went on to say that, rather to her shock, Hughes "found herself on the defensive simply by saying that she hoped women would be able to vote in future elections," and was confronted by women who said that they had no desire to drive, that they loved the "abaya" (the traditional head-to-toe covering Saudi women are required to wear), and that women in Saudi Arabia had "more than equal rights."
Yesterday, the Times ran four letters in response to the story, two of which excoriated Hughes for cultural imperialism. Kathy Seal of Santa Monica, California, wrote:
I treasure the vote and the other rights and privileges that American women and the men supporting them have fought for and won. Yet I'm appalled that Karen P. Hughes, the American under secretary of state for public diplomacy, is telling Saudi women that they should want these same rights and privileges.
People wonder why some people in other countries "hate America." Isn't such arrogance an irritant? Why can't we let the women in other countries fight for their own democratic rights just as we did, rather than telling them what's good for them?
Has it ever occurred to the administration that unless we're invited to do so, we shouldn't be going around telling people what they should want?
She was echoed by New Yorker Pam Perraud:
Karen P. Hughes is a poster child for this administration's clueless foreign policy. She shamelessly promotes American values as the best in the world while criticizing cultures she knows nothing about.
She's making a bad situation worse.
To this I can only say:
Is this what the left (I assume the letter-writers are left of center) has sunk to? Defending one of the world's most oppressive patriarchies -- where in 2001 15 teenage girls died in a fire at a school and dozens were injured because the religious police prevented them from leaving the school without their headscarves and tried to bar male rescuers from entering the building -- rather than allow that some "American values" may be worth emulating?
Is this an expression of principled multiculturalist idiocy, or would these women be singing a different tune if, say, Hillary Clinton rather than Karen Hughes had been the messenger? Either way, this is disgraceful.
Interestingly, the one letter signed by a Muslim woman, Ayesha Khalid Khan of Boston, was supportive of Hughes and pointed out that the women's comments defending Saudi society's treatment of women may have been stemmed from fear of reprisals. (Saudi Arabia, in case you're wondering, is not a democracy.) Another letter-writer, Jane Manning of Equality Now, pointed out that many Saudi women do want the right to vote and to drive. Manning went on to say:
These women are advocating for ideals of justice and equality that are neither American nor Middle Eastern in nature; they are universal human rights deserving of protection from governments and inherent to all women and men, regardless of the national boundaries in which they live.
That used to be the liberal view -- now, apparently, discarded by much of the left in favor of cheap knee-jerk anti-Americanism.
(Reason No. 1,001 I am never going to join the left no matter how annoyed and exasperated I may get at the right.)
Incidentally, it's interesting that while the Times published two letters critical of Hughes and two supportive ones, the letters all ran under the general heading, "Stop preaching to Saudi women." Why not go all out and use the headline, "Women's rights: For Americans only!"
Update: By the way, there is nothing new about some women resisting equal rights and defending their traditional status as offering certain privileges and protections. There were female anti-suffragists in America in the 19th and early 20th Century. More recently, there was Phyllis Schlafly's successful movement to stop the Equal Rights Amendment. Somehow, I doubt that Pam Perraud and Kathy Seale would condemn American feminists for "preaching" to the traditional housewives who mobilized behind Schlafly.