i'll be putting up more thoughts on my own blog regarding mr obama's speech in cairo a few days ago. however, i thought this bit would be of interest to our readers here:
The sixth issue that I want to address is women's rights.
I know there is debate about this issue. I reject the view of some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal, but I do believe that a woman who is denied an education is denied equality. And it is no coincidence that countries where women are well-educated are far more likely to be prosperous.
Now let me be clear: issues of women's equality are by no means simply an issue for Islam. In Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia, we have seen Muslim-majority countries elect a woman to lead. Meanwhile, the struggle for women's equality continues in many aspects of American life, and in countries around the world.
Our daughters can contribute just as much to society as our sons, and our common prosperity will be advanced by allowing all humanity - men and women - to reach their full potential. I do not believe that women must make the same choices as men in order to be equal, and I respect those women who choose to live their lives in traditional roles. But it should be their choice. That is why the United States will partner with any Muslim-majority country to support expanded literacy for girls, and to help young women pursue employment through micro-financing that helps people live their dreams.
there it is, just three short paragraphs. nothing earth-shattering or radical. nothing that could be called particularly brave or courageous. these comments are absolutely "safe", in that there is nothing that his audience would be freaked out by. they focus on the area where there will be a high level of agreement, in that islamic law requires a high level of education for girls and women, equal to that of boys (in theory at least, it might not always be achieved in reality).
but i would say that his remarks are clever. this is a speech (if you read it in its entirety) that understands he is speaking in an environment gifted to him by his predecessor, where there is a huge gap between america and the muslim world. his first purpose is to begin to bridge that gap, to get the other side to start listening, then to start talking. in that way you begin to have a dialogue and some movement in a positive direction.
so at this early stage of the relationship, when he is trying to build the trust, he doesn't venture into areas that would cause his audience to stop listening altogether. areas like equal employment opportunity (although egypt has a better record than others in this regard) or reproductive rights or anything like that.
as a feminist, would i have liked him to said more, to be more outspoken and more of an advocate? absolutely. but on the other hand, i'm also an incrementalists. a believer of taking small steps at a time and making sure that people are with you as you move forward. that takes a lot of time, but it does ensure that the change is more permanent.
and i'm sure he was extremely aware, as am i, of the danger of sounding like a cultural imperialist. just as he earlier says about democracy "no system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other", so is the case with women's rights. it has to come from a movement within the country, not through imposition by an outside force. it has to come from persuasion and dialogue, not through condescension and arrogance.
on the whole, i see this as a start. what i'm looking for is the follow through, in terms of funding women's education. and a progression, as the relationship develops over time, towards discussing the more difficult issues.