The Magazine

Karen of Arabia

I, Mom meets the imams.

Oct 10, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 04 • By JONATHAN KARL
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Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

WHEN KAREN HUGHES'S MOTORCADE pulled up to Dar Al-Hekma women's college in Jeddah, there was one pressing question for the reporters traveling with her: Would we be allowed inside?

America's new public diplomacy czar had arrived to hold a town hall meeting with about 500 Saudi women. Unlike the more controlled events with "opinion leaders," this had the potential for real unpredictability. When had any group of women in Saudi Arabia been invited to question a senior U.S. official?

Unfortunately, half of the reporters traveling with Hughes were men. Bringing us into the auditorium would be a violation of Saudi Arabia's strict segregation of men and women in public places. At first we were shuttled to a separate room and told we would have to watch the event on closed-circuit television. After just a few minutes, there was a surprise announcement: All the reporters, men included, would be allowed into the auditorium. U.S. Embassy officials couldn't believe it. One called it "historic." Men and women together in public. A shocking thought in the Saudi world. Gamal Helal, a longtime Arabic interpreter and adviser to Democratic and Republican presidents, told Hughes it was "a Rosa Parks moment." Maybe not quite "Rosa Parks," but Saudi reform advocates say the recently crowned King Abdullah is serious about reform, and this could be an indication they are right.

We walked in to see 500 Saudi women, all covered in abayas, a sea of black except for a handful of white head scarves. The traveling press, however, would be segregated by sex: The women in our group were instructed to sit on the right side of the auditorium, the men on the left. Cameras were not permitted.

Hughes was only two days into her five-day "listening tour" of the Middle East, and she was relentlessly "on message." Her unshakable discipline in sticking to the script has a mind-numbing effect when you watch her through several events a day.

"I go as an official of the U.S. government, but I'm also a mom, a working mom," she told reporters on the flight from Washington to Cairo.

To college students in Cairo: "You've heard my title, but that's the fancy stuff. I am really a mom."

"My most important job is mom," she said in an interview with NBC News. "I still have to pinch myself a little when I am sitting in a meeting with the king [of Saudi Arabia] and realize that I'm there representing our country."

At a joint press conference in Turkey: "I am a mom, and I love kids. I love all kids. And I understand that is something I have in common with the Turkish people."

That's right, the Turkish people love kids.

Even when she talked about Muslim religious leaders, instead of saying "Imam," she would say, "I-mom." All this "I-mom" diplomacy left some people a bit mystified. When it came time for a photo op with the Saudi information minister, the TV cameras picked up this exchange:

Saudi information minister: "Tell me what you are seeking to hear--"

Hughes (interjecting): "I'm really here to listen."

Saudi minister: "I'm not sure what it is."

The event at the women's college in Saudi Arabia started like all the others. "My most important title is that of mom," Hughes told the women, many watching from behind their veils. But things were about to get interesting.

"I know here in Saudi Arabia, you had municipal elections earlier this year," she said. The elections were the first in Saudi history, but women were not allowed to vote.

"We certainly hope and encourage--again we don't want to impose--that women will be allowed not only to vote but to perhaps run for office, and we look forward to the day when women will be able to fully participate in Saudi society."

When it came time for questions from the women, two things became clear: (1) These students didn't find Karen Hughes's status as a mom particularly relevant; and (2) they resented being portrayed as victims.

Student after student stepped to the microphones in the hall. Peering out from behind their abayas, they denounced the portrayal in the American news media of Saudi women as powerless and abused.

"We are not oppressed. We are not prisoners in our own homes," said one student. "We are all pretty happy." She demanded to know why Americans have such a negative view of the way Saudi women are treated.

With this Hughes saw an opening and, for the first time on her trip, went into completely uncharted territory.