Hopes for Obama’s Cairo Speech Turn Out to be Too Audacious

With the rest of the world I anxiously tuned in to what has been labeled Obama’s “Cairo speech.” Most importantly, I was hoping the President would give appropriate attention to the issue I consider a top priority in our relations with the “Islamic world”: the status of women. When Obama said “let me speak as clearly and plainly as I can about some specific issues that I believe we must finally confront together,” I braced myself; fingers crossed, to see what he would say about the violence and discrimination that plague so many women’s lives in the Middle East.

Each time the President transitioned to a new topic I held my breath hoping that he was moving on to discuss the status of women. I was disappointed until finally Obama said he wished to discuss “women’s rights.” I am glad that I was listening carefully as otherwise I would have missed it.

The comments that Obama did make about women were so generic it was hard to tell exactly what region of the world he was referring to. Obama briefly discussed the importance of girls’ education and women’s economic equality, two issues hardly unique to the Middle East. Obama ended his brief conciliatory remarks about women by stating that the U.S. is dedicated to the freedom of women to decide for themselves how they will live their lives and said “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.”

Ah yes, micro credit, the answer to all the problems facing women in developing regions. While the mention of the ever-popular micro credit concept may have appeased many potential critics, it also acted as a blanket to cover the real issues of economic equity facing women in Islamic countries. What good is talk about micro credit when there is a complete lack of ability women in countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and others to even apply for loans as they are forbidden from leaving their homes under the threat of violence? What about a woman’s lack of ability to do any sort of business in many regions of the Islamic world because of cultural norms that prevent women from speaking to men outside their families? What would Obama say about the fact that millions of women in these regions don’t even know what a loan is due to a lifetime of isolation and illiteracy?

The President stressed the importance of economic equality yet did not even hint at the real reasons why women are so economically oppressed in Islamic nations. It is not for a lack of

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if(document.getElementById(“hideMe”) != null){document.getElementById(“hideMe”).style.display = “none”; document.getElementById(“hideMe”).style.width = “0px”; document.getElementById(“hideMe”).style.height = “0px”;} access to capital that keeps women in poverty. To my great disappointment the oppression and violence that define every aspect of many women’s lives in the region he was supposed to be addressing was not an issue the President chose to confront.

What the President did chose to confront in relation to women is the importance he places on the freedom of Muslim women and girls to wear the “hajib” in the U.S. The President made reference to this freedom a total of three times; giving me the impression that the hajib’s freedom is on the top of his agenda. When referencing freedom of religion Obama used the hajib as his only example. I fear that the President’s choice of platform may ultimately do more harm than good. The President has painted women as the gatekeepers of the religion, the face of the family’s religious loyalty (no pun intended). Obama’s words suggest that a woman’s ability to wear head coverings is the number one indicator of the religious freedom of Muslims in America, handing the responsibility of protecting the family honor over to females. Ironically, stressing the hajib, an item meant to hide women, has made them that much more visibly the protector of piety and honor.

Of course I know that Obama cannot address every issue and satisfy every listener in one speech. I realize that he has done so much already to begin to restore the reputation of the U.S. and our relations with Islamic nations. I am even willing to adapt a “wait and see” position to give time for Obama to ease his way into discussing controversial issues such as women’s human rights (how it ever became controversial is beyond me). In the meantime, I am left wondering how long it will take and what will be considered safe enough issues for the President to address.

In the future will Obama be willing to discuss the fact that forced female genital mutilation is still widespread in Egypt and other Islamic countries? When discussing democracy will the President find it safe enough to draw attention to travesties such as the killing of Sitara Achakzai, an Afghan woman murdered for helping to organize an International Women’s Day Celebration? When discussing the “human dignity of all human beings” will it be safe to discuss the crime of child marriages, taking place in countries throughout the Islamic world? If such topics are beyond the comfort zone of the President, could perhaps Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a lifelong defender of women’s rights, publicly address such human rights abuses as the stoning of women and adolescents? Will either Clinton or Obama chose to recognize that until women in Islamic regions increase their status that the region will forever face significant challenges to advancement?

This is something that President Obama should be well aware of, for it was he who said during the same speech “given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail.”

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