- The Washington Times - Monday, March 22, 2004

With strong support from President Bush, the first lady and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, the United States is making the empowerment of women an important part of its effort to promote democracy in the Middle East.

First lady Laura Bush, who has avoided the spotlight during much of the past three years, has taken a leading role in publicizing the issue.

“If you marginalize half of the society, if you keep women at home … that’s a way to keep a whole people subjugated,” she said in a March 1 interview with Al Hurra, a new U.S.-run TV station broadcasting to the Middle East.

She also has been quoted as saying, “Without women, the goals of democracy and peace cannot be achieved.”

After the overthrow of the Taliban, the administration worked to encourage reform through women’s rights programs, including the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council and the Millennium Challenge Account, which invests in social improvement in developing countries, she said.

Another program, the Middle Eastern Partnership Initiative (MEPI), which encourages women’s participation in politics and commerce, initially was supervised by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Elizabeth Cheney, daughter of Vice President Dick Cheney.

Mr. Powell announced two more initiatives on March 8 that placed women’s rights at the center of Mr. Bush’s declared strategy to encourage greater freedom in the Middle East.

The Women’s Democracy Initiative and the U.S.-Iraq Women’s Network are set to receive $10 million in direct funding from the State Department, in addition to support from existing programs. Both aim to encourage women’s political and economic involvement.

“Developed and developing countries alike cannot hope to meet 21st-century challenges without the full participation of women in all aspects of their national life,” Mr. Powell said in announcing the initiatives.

Undersecretary of State Paula Dobriansky, who recently returned from a U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council meeting in Kabul, said in an e-mail interview that women’s rights is “one of four pillars” of Mr. Bush’s initiative to support reform in the Middle East. The other three pillars are economic development, education and political reform.

“The president, first lady, secretary of state and others have been very engaged and outspoken on behalf of women’s rights worldwide,” she said.

Mrs. Dobriansky acknowledged that the introduction of women’s rights into a traditionally male-dominated region like the Middle East is a delicate procedure.

“There can be a feeling that ‘foreigners come in and tell us what to do with our women,’” she said.

Dr. Rajaa Khuzai, an obstetrician and one of three women on the Iraqi Governing Council, said in an interview that U.S. backing helped give Iraqi women the courage to achieve one of their most important victories to date.

After the council voted in December to introduce the traditional Islamic law known as Shariah, Iraqi women protested.

“Women demonstrated in the streets calling for a retraction, and thousands signed petitions,” Dr. Khuzai said.

Dr. Khuzai presented the council with a verse-by-verse analysis of Koranic verses calling for women to be respected and honored.

A majority of 15 members eventually voted for retraction, and the resolution was withdrawn in February. Afterward, Dr. Khuzai said, she received threatening phone calls and letters, but viewed it as a small price to pay.

Mrs. Dobriansky said that in promoting women’s rights, the United States must balance the push for individual freedoms with ingrained religious traditions in the region.

“Our policy is to respect each country’s religious traditions, but to oppose any extremist rule that tramples on individual rights,” she said. “These democratic changes are done within Islamic law. There is nothing that says Islam and democracy are incompatible.”

Charlotte Ponticelli, the senior coordinator for international women’s issues at the State Department, said she thinks the conflict between religion and women’s rights was “greatly overblown.”

“When you have a dozen women at a meeting, they’re not talking about whether they’re Sunni or [Shi’ite],” she said. “They’re joined in their determination to unite Iraq.”

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