Hughes not having a great week

Undersecretary of State Karen Hughes is not having the easiest time these last few days trying to convince women that the American way is super-duper.
Yesterday at a Saudi university Hughes got her ass handed to her by a room full of women:

…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 administration’s efforts to publicize American ideals in the Muslim world have often run into such resistance.
…Many in this region say they resent the American assumption that, given the chance, everyone would live like Americans.

Then today, a group of Turkish women confronted Hughes about the invasion of Iraq:

“This war is really, really bringing your positive efforts to the level of zero,” said Hidayet Sefkatli Tuksal, an activist with the Capital City Women’s Forum. She said it was difficult to talk about cooperation between women in the United States and Turkey as long as Iraq was under occupation.
…”War makes the rights of women completely erased and poverty comes after war — and women pay the price,” said Fatma Nevin Vargun, a Kurdish women’s rights activist.
…Hughes, looking increasingly pained, defended the decision to invade Iraq as a difficult and wrenching moment for President Bush, but necessary to protect America.
“You’re concerned about war, and no one likes war,” she said. But, she said, “to preserve the peace sometimes my country believes war is necessary.” She also asserted that women are faring much better in Iraq than under the rule of deposed president Saddam Hussein.
War is not necessary for peace,” shot back Feray Salman, a human rights advocate. She said countries should not try to impose democracy through war, adding that “we can never, ever export democracy and freedom from one country to another.”

Love it. There’s just this insane arrogance that goes along with the idea that American women know what’s best for women around the world. Whatever happened to letting women tell their own stories and speak for themselves?

Join the Conversation

  • Jack Fisher

    Several women said later that Americans failed to understand that their traditional society was embraced by men and women alike.
    “There is more male chauvinism in my profession in Europe and America than in my country,” said Dr. Siddiqa Kamal, an obstetrician and gynecologist who runs her own hospital.
    “I don’t want to drive a car,” she said. “I worked hard for my medical degree. Why do I need a driver’s license?”
    The amount of male chauvinism in Saudia Arabia is beyond the comprehension of western culture.The oppression against women runs so deep that many women are in agreement with it.
    Does any of this sound familiar to feminists reading this? Women everywhere around the world contribute to their own bondage.
    The backlash against American policy and culture is evident throughout the article.That’s just fine,except when it is used to justify oppression.
    Personally, I would take the reaction from this handpicked group with a grain of salt.The elite of Saudia Arabia, men or women, are among the richest, most pampered people on the planet.Should we be taking their opinion as representative of their culture?
    Although I like seeing Bushes people challenged for their arrogance, I think it would be a good idea for women to have the right to vote and the right to drive in any country.
    Dr Kamals quote about driving speaks for itself.

  • Ryan

    This post baffles me. It seems you are letting your politics blur your ideology. Do you hate the war, Karen Hughes and George Bush? Obviously. But where is your normal skepticism and outrage at the state of affairs for women in a place like Saudi Arabia? In your approval of the critical speech about the war in Iraq and distaste for the idea that the US is imposing its values, you neglected to point out how shocking, disturbing, scary, and disappointingly sad that this is. It’s the year 2005 and Saudi Arabia is just one of many countries that treats women, not like second-class citizens, but like property.
    There is a lot more going on here that was worth discussing, yet it was ignored. Although the post serves your political purposes (protesting the war, Bush, and Karen Hughes), the fact that Saudi women are “happy” with their state of affairs is clearly as troubling as what you chose to comment on. Do you really think Saudi women or the millions of other oppressed women in these types of regimes, world-wide, feel empowered enough, safe enough, or self-aware enough to, as you say, “speak for themselves”? I don’t think that is a realistic strategy for promoting change and making things better for so many women…at least not in this century. One would think you could find at least one positive in all of this “ideological imposition,” even if it does not fit your political bent.

  • becca

    This post it terribly silly. Its not like Ms. Hughes told a group of Saudi women that they should put on mini-skirts and convert to Christianity to be like American women. She told them that they should take notice of the ridiculous constraints on their freedom that society handed them, instead of being “content” with their way of life. I’m sure some women in this country were perfectly happy before they had the right to vote, as well… Some of these women have never known what its like to have freedom of movement, let alone the right to vote, and personally I don’t care if its forcing my “western” cultural norms on them, I think some freedoms are universal – and I applaud Ms. Hughes for not sugar coating the issue.

  • puckalish

    i don’t think anything about this post was terribly silly… why, just look at the comment-section reactions – i’d say it’s thought-provoking…
    further, ms. hughes was not just telling saudi women to “take notice of the ridiculous constraints on their freedom…” – she was there as a pr rep from the united states… not to mention that if she were just some random white woman from the states, it’d come off as a tad bit patronizing…
    i do think that your comments are a little assuming, though, Jessica. i mean, plenty of times on here, there is mention of the subjugation of women around the world… the implicit argument is that this is wrong and, perhaps, something should be done about it, no?
    however, what Jessica’s post really woke me up to is that, from places of privelige, we spend a great deal of time observing and judging situations from afar. what is truly needed, though, is coalition and communication.
    certainly, we can assume that these female saudi professionals were towing “the party line” or have the wool pulled over their eyes. i mean, shoot, we’ve got concerned women for america, right? and these are women who already have some measure of success…
    however, there is something to be said for self-determination of a people… from the outside of a situation, you can never assume you’re right. every case is different… just as the meeting in saudi arabia is wildly different from the one in turkey… and i think Feray Salman’s quote is really on-hit as far as the illegitimacy of “exporting” democracy.
    there is no such thing as the “ends justifies the means”… the means determine the ends… history leaves residue… war leaves immediate problems which set back genuine forward movements within a culture. why – just look at the u.s. since 9/11, we’ve taken several very significant steps backward in terms of civil rights, privacy, etc. etc.
    how do you think this affects situations where the war is much more widespread and much closer to home? heck… in afganistan, there’s an election, but 207 of the 400 candidates have personal armies. it’s really hard to tell if that’s a step forward – for anyone.
    peace and blessings

  • Dim Undercellar

    How anyone can infer “self-determination” for women in a country where they are legally bought and sold as property is entirely beyond me. That’s like saying black slaves circa 1859 are by and large happy, ‘cuz that’s what they tell you in front of their owners, and talking about their self-determination to choose their own way of life.
    Are we so stupid that the patriarchal wool can only be pulled over the eyes of American women, and that women in SAUDI-FUCKING-ARABIA, where those little girls were held in a BURNING SCHOOL BUILDING TO DIE BY THE POLICE BECAUSE THEY WEREN’T WEARING VEILS, and thus WERE NOT ALLOWED OUTSEID, are empowered to make their own decisions about how to live?

  • puckalish

    you appear to me to be amazingly mislead… unless i’m just misunderstanding you…
    which wouldn’t be suprising as you grossly misunderstood me… i never said anything about women in oppressive situations being “happy”…
    i wrote a really long post – lots of great links and such, but i lost it ‘cos my machine crashed… so here goes an attempt (the punctuation was much better the first time around)…
    the point, though, is that the union army did not free the slaves…
    it was the work of people like frederick douglass that made any forward motion possible… lincoln himself said:

    If I could free all of the slaves and save the Union, I would, and if I could free some of the slaves and save the Union, I would also do that, and if I could free none of the slaves and save the Union I would do that, too.

    do you think the motivations of our government now are any different? why do you think that RAWA opposes US military intervention in the middle east? is it because they’re not dedicated to “real” feminism? are you out of your fucking mind!?
    yeah, and it’s no mistake that our government sent a pr rep to talk to an islamic women’s university (kind of like a mirror of a christian women’s university here – professional, right-wing, conservative)… and it’s no accident that she got the answers she got… those answers certainly are not justification for paternalistic attitudes on the part of cloistered western feminists, though.
    fuck all, i’m serious about self-determination… do you have any idea what life is like for someone else until you listen to them? no. so open up your goddamn ears and don’t try to tell me i’m dumb for suggesting that military imperialism, even under a banner of supposedly liberating women, is a crock of shit… do a little fucking research… there’s a whole islamic feminist movement out there and several prominent figures are saudi (Maha Fitaihi, Mai Yamani, Samar Fatani), yet they don’t support u.s. efforts in the middle east and our government isn’t rushing to meet with them.
    is the envoy of the u.s. imperialist war machine going out to greet them? fuck no…

    A woman in the audience then charged that under President Bush the United States had become “a right wing country” and that criticism by the press was “not allowed.”
    “I have to say I sometimes wish that were the case, but it’s not,” Ms. Hughes said with a laugh.

    and passively being “empowered” by an outside force has NOTHING TO DO with self-determination… SELF-determination… harriet tubman didn’t wait for someone to come along and give her a hand and, when the white northerners finally took it on “free” the black slaves, what happened?
    sharecropping, a public school system designed to produce industrial slaves (see this book), the same military that “freed” the slaves went on to prevent black students from going to the same schools as white students 109 years later… you think that shit is over? you think the civil war was even about slavery?
    do you think i don’t know stuff’s shitty out there? i mean, dang, american soldiers watched a girl get hanged because of sleeping with an american out of wedlock. oh, and guess what, we were COMPLICIT in that little bit of violence.
    what we need is international cooperation, we need serious global coalition-building… that’s not going to happen as long as feminists in one region feel that they know what’s better for women in another region than those very women.
    so i suggest anyone who’s interested in this to really look into some serious islamic feminism… check out some books, blogs, whatever… read up on rawa and other indigenous movements and fuck off on the whole concept that women in oppressive situations cannot make their own decisions about how to live. too many people are telling them that already, not to mention that it’s paternalistic bullshit.
    peace and blessings

  • Gwen

    I really have to agree that the post is not “silly” in any way. What these women are going through is very complex, and the fact that their voices were heard is important, even if some in the progressive community are using it for anti-war or other less-than-genuine purposes (which I should say, I do NOT think was the point of Jess’s post).
    That said, I think that these women’s reactions are probably a combination of things. First, they are most likely reacting to the imperialist nature of the visit for sure, but they are also no dummies– these women (at least the ones who were featured in the report, and if you think about who would even be given access to a person like Hughes) are in the upper UPPER classes of Saudi society. So, in that sense, they are right–who really cares about being able to drive when you have a driver to take you everywhere? Ok, that might be a bit of a stretch– but you get my point. Second, I’m not really one for the “cultural relativist” point of view, but some of that perspective should probably be taken into consideration as well (ok, you like wearing the abaya– I think it would limit my wardrobe, but if it works for you, great).
    However, I do think there’s also bit of backlash/ anti-imperialism (as there always is) that western women are, well, western women and therefore these particular women are acting against the idea of “women’s equality” as defined by western women. This is ALWAYS an item for discussion in the inter/transnational feminist circles. Feminism is interpreted in different ways depending on your position. So, WORD to puckalish for the global cooperation shout-out.And this isn’t only international — it’s local. Many black women I know prefer not to use the term feminist because it conjures up images of old, rich, white women… and it’s also why many younger women prefice any discussion w/ the dreaded “I’m not a feminist, but…” But you probably know all this if you read this blog even somewhat regularly.

  • Dim Undercellar

    Puck, should we or should we not liberate Saudi Arabian women?
    I’m not asking if what we’re doing RIGHT NOW with OUR MILITARY is right. I’m asking what we SHOULD be doing.
    You seem to be talking out of both sides of your mouth. In one line, you say imply we have no right to intervene at all because top down interventions don’t work (which will really suck the bag for American feminists, because the movement at large seems to be entirely about convincing lawmakers to do TOP-DOWN legislating rather than about raising money to launch massive public awareness campaigns that aren’t dependant on any upcoming elections/legislation), and in the next line you say that you’re not blind to what’s going on over there and that they’re in a nasty situation.
    So what are you saying? Top down doesn’t work, so we should let them figure out some way to stage a revolution on their own, Stockholm sydrome, acid-splashed faces and all, and we should just cheer them on with pom-poms until they do? Or should we try to actually liberate them?
    If we *should be* cheerleaders, then sure, laughing at Hughes getting reamed over interventionism is fine. If we *should be* intervening, then laughing at Hughes getting reamed over intervention IN IRAQ is still fine, but applauding slaves who say “we’re happy so go away please or my master will beat me” as exercising their self-determination is completely assinine.
    Between watching a woman get beheaded for reporting a rape, or watching a woman struggle and suffer to adapt to a brand new cultural system all-of-a-sudden, while I know both situations suck, I know which one would make me feel more dirty if I could have prevented it.
    You may feel dirty about the other one. I don’t know. Because you’re either doing the Texas Two-Step, or else you’re confusing politics with universal human rights.

  • puckalish

    no, i’m not “talking out of both sides of [my] mouth,” you’re just illiterate.
    suggestion number one, reread gwen and my posts… they’re pretty clear. have someone help you if you don’t understand – you might learn something!
    check it out… simply put, so your dim wit can understand it… you see only two options:
    1. let it be and let women living under oppressive regimes figure shit out for themselves while, at most, we cheerlead
    2. “liberate Saudi Arabian women” by intervening without consulting/supporting any regional women’s movements
    I’D FEEL “DIRTY” ABOUT BOTH OF THOSE, SINCE THEY BOTH SUCK AND CIRCUMVENT THE LEGITIMATE AGENCY OF SAUDI WOMEN THEMSELVES (through either direct oppression or paternalist, imperialist external interventions – which, no doubt, would leave misogynist men in power [see Iraq])
    there’s a lot more than that in the world, though…
    check it… read back over my other posts for a minute… read gwen’s post… see what we’re fucking saying…
    there’s a third, fourth, fifth… options…
    here’s one (let’s call it the third) option, which i stated clearly before:
    3. develop strong coalitions with EXTANT WOMEN’S LIBERATION GROUPS from the affected communities and HELP THEM
    more in depth – contact existing feminist or liberationist groups in the affected area (if you want examples, read my previous post) and let THEM lead the struggle while we offer whatever support we can – whatever support they ask for – be it money, political asylum, our labor or other resources (like water, education, food, clothing, building supplies, etc.) representation at the UN or ICC, even economic sanctions or military intervention – BUT LET THE LEADERSHIP COME FROM WITHIN.
    further, you’re horribly missing the point if you think the whole feminist movement is interested in “convincing lawmakers to do TOP-DOWN legislating.” i don’t think you understand what the term “top-down” means…
    if someone lobbies for legislation THAT AFFECTS THEM, that’s not top-down… if somone works for legislation THAT AFFECTS OTHER PEOPLE, that’s top-down.
    in our political system, any legislation is going to be “top-down” since we live in a republic as opposed to a democracy – i’d go more in depth, but you could just practice your reading skills by studying some political theory… i’ll leave it alone.
    despite this, there can be movements to affect legislation that are not “top-down” because they are what’s called “grassroots” movements. this, plainly put, means that the change comes from the group that will be impacted by the legislation in question – that’s what domestic feminist lobbies are all about.
    so stop calling out some ridiculous name-calling bullshit, like “texas two-step” and pay attention to what is ACTUALLY BEING SAID.
    peace out – have a wonderful weekend everyone – keep on pushing… something’s gotta break…
    in love and struggle,

  • Jessica

    puck, thanks for making the point so much better than i did. (and apologies for taking forever to get to this thread.)
    ryan, i truly resent what you’re trying to say about my politics here, i really do.
    what i was trying to say in this post had a lot more to do with my feelings about western feminism than the bushies and the war, actually. there’s no doubt that women all around the world are oppressed, but there’s a serious fucking problem when the great white hope comes in to tell women how oppressed they are and what they need to do about it. if you look to the international feminist community, they don’t put up with that shit for a hot second. hughes was doing what way too many western folks do–a mommy knows best faux concern tap dance. if you truly want to help women in other parts of the world, ask them how to do it–don’t fucking tell them anything.
    sorry for the potty mouth, this shit pisses me off.