Washington, DC - Establishing a role for women in a patriarchal society, one in which they can contribute toward building a culture of peace, is no simple task. Nevertheless, despite restrictions imposed more by cultural traditions than by religious diktat, Muslim women are not entirely the second-class citizens deprived of all rights, as so often portrayed in the West. And nor are non-Muslim women living in the Muslim world.
Women, as the gentler of the two sexes, often make better cultural ambassadors, or even just better ambassadors. It is a shame that most Muslim governments have been painfully slow in recognizing that fact, at least until very recently. With the rare exception, the Muslim world’s diplomatic corps has had remarkably few females serve as head of their overseas missions.
While accompanying Karen Hughes, President Bush’s newly appointed under secretary for public diplomacy and public affairs on her visit to Saudi Arabia last September, Jonathan Karl, a senior foreign affairs correspondent with ABC News, wrote in The Weekly Standard, that when he asked a young Saudi female student what she wanted to be 10 years from now, she replied, "Ambassador."
"Does Saudi Arabia have any women ambassadors, anywhere in the world?" he asked.
"No," she replied. But she is convinced that her country is changing so much that Saudi Arabia will soon have women ambassadors, reported Karl.
While the cliché of the oppressed woman still holds true in parts of the Muslim world, by and large, Muslim women have come to enjoy greater freedom. They have won the right to vote and run for office in most Muslim countries. And while they may be largely absent from their diplomatic corps, Arab women are now found serving in police forces of most, if not all, Arab countries.
Muslim women are active members of their societies, where they play influential roles. Given the chance to serve their countries as diplomats, they can impact public opinion in a positive manner, particularly in the West where they can help establish common ground between the two cultures.
Queen Noor of Jordan, and the reigning monarch’s wife, Queen Rania, are prime examples of influential Muslim women involved in promoting dialogue between cultures.
In non-Arab Muslim states, such as Indonesia, Pakistan and Bangladesh, women have fared better, rising to the office of the presidency.
The fossilized views regarding women espoused by the Taliban or those of the strictest of Salafis are the exception rather that the rule in a changing Muslim world. Still, much more needs to be done for Muslim women to win parity with men.
Saudi author Badriyya Al-Bishr, a lecturer in social sciences at King Saud University, recently published an article in the London Arabic-language daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat titled "Imagine You're a Woman." She laments the lack of women’s freedom in Saudi Arabia where adult women still require a guardian’s approval even to get a job. The ‘guardian’ may be her 15-year-old son.
In spite of these restrictions, women in the Muslim world are often not afraid to speak up, as demonstrated by a female Saudi Arabian journalist who drilled the Saudi minister of Religious Affairs at a press conference in Riyadh. Not satisfied with the answers, she persisted to the point of near harassment. It prompted the minister, who is also the kingdom’s Grand Imam, to comment to the Western press in attendance: “And some of you think we oppress our women and prevent them from voicing their opinion.”
Indeed, when Karen Hughes toured a number of Muslim countries last September, she was surprised to hear from Saudi women that driving a car, or even voting was very low on their list of priorities. Far more important was their need for the United States to better understand the Arab world, the need to build bridges between the US and the Muslim world, and the need for the US to help bring justice to all the people of the Middle East.
Countries and societies that exclude their women from active participation in every aspect of daily life only end up hurting themselves by limiting their human resource potential and brain power by nearly fifty percent. Empowering women as ambassadors of peace can help build that bridge.
* Claude Salhani is International Editor and a political analyst with United Press International in Washington. Comments may be sent to Claude@upi.com.
Source: This article is part of a series of views on "The Role of Women in US-Muslim Relations", published in partnership with the Common Ground News Service – Partners in Humanity (CGNews-PiH) and United Press International (UPI).
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