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Behind the veil and beyond the hijab

By simplistic Western standards, Muslim women come with two labels: "subjugated" and "quasi-subjugated"
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America's circus diplomacy has arrived in the Middle East. The lady from Texas, grand emissary of the American Sultanate headed by Bush, has come to change the hearts and minds of people in the eastern caliphates, particularly those that hide behind the veils and beneath the scarves of Muslim women. Imagine: Karen Hughes proselytizing those daughters of the Qur'an. and with a Southern televangelical accent no less!

But irreverent comments aside, and in deference to the seriousness of the task at hand [changing hearts and minds in the Muslim world] let the circus have its day, and let the star clown perform.

In her first trip to the Middle East, two weeks after being sworn in as Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, the Texas lady is showing after just five days a total ineptitude to address issues properly, much less change minds. It takes a far more complex approach than pegging Muslim people as either extremist or moderate, and building up your diplomatic relations campaign around that.

If Ms. Hughes relies on a string of get-togethers with the local (and friendly) who-is-who, from Sheik Tantawi, Prime Minister Nazif and Pope Shenouda in Egypt to equally eminent Turkish counterparts, it becomes obvious that a well-drafted strategy to accomplish White House objectives is not, nor has it ever been, in her bag. Diplomacy has its place, but where the battle-test occurs is among the rank-and-file who represent the voice of the people, specifically those who shape the tone and timbre of that voice. most often, the educated young. And that's where Under Secretary Hughes failed.

Whether in Cairo or in Istanbul, two key issues crafted the pattern of questions asked of her by bright and concerned university students. The first had to do with "why first world nations, particularly the United States, insist on interfering in the affairs of third world countries instead of just offering help and guidance." And the second, "why did the US invade Iraq and still remains there." Answers provided by Ms. Hughes did show a total disconnect with much irrefutable knowledge these young people have on the issues.

She provided the same litany of answers which have "defensively" evolved in the White House during the past three years, and which are now parroted by President Bush- repeated ad nauseam as if such repetition could render them valid. But to her probable regret, these were not the pliable college students she might have dealt with in the US. And what made it even more interesting, many of the questions came from women students, and not just Muslim men.

By simplistic Western standards, Muslim women come with two labels: "subjugated" and "quasi-subjugated"; two groups separated by the wearing or not wearing of the modesty-symbol represented by the hijab. Never mind the spectrum of feminism that currently may exist from Jakarta to Rabat, or even the feminism of old which existed from Beirut to pre-US Baghdad. Those female university students from Cairo and Istanbul were not questioning their status as "subjugated" women, but something far more meaningful to them: peace and the presence of US troops in Iraq.

We must never forget that first and foremost Muslim women are just that: women. And that implies being daughters, sisters, wives and mothers to those who stand in harm's way. Men may do battle for principle and honor. women prefer peace to bloodshed. Women, by their nature, prioritize their suffering for those they love, not themselves. Muslim women do as well.

Suffering for many women of Islam is a reality, not a perception. That brings us back to the lady faced with the improbable task of changing perceptions about America in the Middle East. and to do so with a dosage of diplomatic PR. That's a tall order for even the most accomplished diplomatic magician and something short of impossible for a circus clown.

There is little doubt that Karen Hughes has proved her worth in Texas politics, and that she commands both loyalty and admiration from the man occupying the White House. As for her virtuosity in being an articulate and persuasive communicator, or a diplomat; those are credits that appear to escape her. By accepting such improbable assignment from Bush, she has become the latest marquee clown in America's circus diplomacy.

The bottom line remains the same. How people in the world view America, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, will not change. Not until there is a bona fide overhaul to US foreign policy. and the implementation of such new policy begins. That has yet to happen. Some Muslims, wearing their best intentions, may have clung to the prospect of another ray of hope by giving Karen Hughes a chance. even if it results in a mirage. And in truth, this PR game was exactly that. a mirage.

The days of the itinerant Medicine Man are long past. you cannot bamboozle the elixir of a flawed foreign policy and simply give it the flavor of PR. Most people won't buy it; certainly not the women of Islam, whether in hijab or not.


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