Karen Hughes has her work cut out for her. She’s the undersecretary of state assigned to persuade foreigners, particularly Muslims, to love us. On her “maiden voyage” to the Middle East this week, she’s in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, trying to win friends and influence people. This requires a sail through the Scylla and Charybdis of multicultural paradox.
As a professional woman, she embodies Western emancipation and stands as a bold rebuke to Muslim misogynists who are determined to keep women in their place. She wears a pantsuit like a woman who wants men to treat her like a man. Muslim women who have carved out careers will no doubt see her as a champion for women’s rights. Women who cheerfully tolerate the indignities of an aggressively male religion and the men who want to keep it that way will see in her all they hate about America. For them, freedom is frightening. This is the most difficult of the issues Karen Hughes faces. She was stunned when several Saudi women told her they like the restrictions men put on them. When a Turkish woman criticized the war on terror, she was reduced to repeating Bill Clinton’s mantra: “I feel the pain you are feeling.”
Women are a dilemma for Islam. Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, urged his country in the 1920s to fully emancipate women, arguing that the Turks would never catch up with the rest of the world if they modernized only half the population. He was right, but the task hasn’t been easy, nor is it complete. “The emancipation of women, more than any other single issue, is the touchstone of difference between modernization and Westernization,” writes Bernard Lewis, the Middle Eastern scholar, in his book, “What Went Wrong.” He continues: “The emancipation is Westernization; for both traditional conservatives and radical fundamentalists it is neither necessary nor useful, but noxious, a betrayal of true Islamic values.” As a result, even where many Muslim women enjoy liberation misogynist practices continue, and even follow fundamentalist Muslim emigrants to Europe, particularly to Germany and the Netherlands.
Muslim men, who feel their masculinity threatened when women gain equal political, economic and social status under the law, combine contempt for women with contempt for Western values. Women who have worn Western dress for years, or who yearn to do so, feel renewed pressure today to put on the abaya, the burka, the chador, the headscarf or the veil.
Turkish women who have thrown off their chadors in Germany and gone secular in dress and dating habits have paid the full price for their rebellion. In recent months at least six Muslim women have been murdered in “honor killings”; a woman’s organization documents more than 40 honor killings in less than a decade. Their killers have been brothers, husbands and fathers, and are generally revered as heroes in their insulated communities.
Alice Schwarzer, “the Betty Friedan of Berlin,” blames the misanthropic and misogynistic multiculturalism that averts its eyes from the Muslim oppression of women in Germany. “Every denunciation of this abuse is branded as racism,” she tells der Spiegel newsmagazine. A woman who stumbles beneath a mountain of cloth and is forced into an arranged marriage is a “scandal” that Germans and others in the rest of the world refuse to stand up against: “After the Nazis condemned everything foreign, the children now want to love everything foreign, with their eyes closed tightly.”
Feminists in the United States, eager to blame fundamentalist Christians for everything, are reluctant to criticize fundamentalist Muslims for anything. But a cursory scan of the Internet finds several sites beginning to expose the way Muslim men both here and abroad get a politically correct pass in the name of multicultural tolerance. When all cultures are considered equal it’s difficult to criticize culturally protected traditions, even if those traditions brutalize women.
It’s no small irony that the chador has been given new life as a fashion trend, even though it’s a fashion dictated by men to reduce erotic temptation. A doll named Fulla, who looks a lot like Barbie, is a best seller in several Middle Eastern countries, including Syria, Egypt, Jordan and Qatar. She comes wrapped in a pink box, but the packaging is deceptive. Her basic wardrobe comes in two colors, all black or all white, a chador or long coat with headscarves.
Fulla, we’re told, seems destined to be an old maid; she will never get a boyfriend like Ken. But a Dr. Fulla and a Teacher Fulla are on the drawing boards. If Karen Hughes succeeds against all odds, maybe Fulla will get a pantsuit and an attache case. But I wouldn’t bet Fulla’s wardrobe on it.