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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.

One reason Americans feel that way about the treatment of Saudi women, Hughes said, is the ban on women driving. And here she went significantly further than her boss, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. During her own recent trip to Saudi Arabia, Rice specifically declined to criticize the ban on women driving. In contrast, Hughes took on the Saudi ban on women driving and did so in a nuanced, even artful, way.

"I believe women should be full and equal participants in society," she said. "And I feel as an American woman that my ability to drive is an important part of my freedom. It has allowed me to work during my career, it has allowed me to go to the grocery store and shop for my family, it allows me to go to the doctor. It gives me a measure, an important measure, of independence," Hughes said.

"Now I understand that your culture and traditions here in Saudi Arabia are very different," she continued. "So I don't think we should try to impose from outside an outcome for you all. But I do think we can encourage greater participation, encourage opportunities like this for women in Saudi Arabia to speak up and speak your minds."

Her point was simple: Saudi women should have a say in whether or not they are allowed to drive or vote.

Hughes later told reporters that as she was leaving the auditorium, "more than five women came up to me and said, I'm so glad you said that. They whispered it very quietly." Another U.S. official at the meeting said one of the teachers told her she planned to discreetly start teaching students to drive next year.

After the meeting was over, I waded into the crowd and started talking to the women, who weren't even supposed to be in the same room as me. Dismayed school officials watched as other reporters, men and women, started doing the same thing.

The women were eager to talk, almost all of them insisting that Americans are all wrong about Saudi Arabia and the role of Saudi women. Soon, however, it became clear that these women, for the most part, are convinced their country is changing.

"Besides driving, name one way we don't have equal rights," said a student named Aram.

"Can you travel without permission of a male relative?" I asked.

"No. But we still travel."

"Do your brothers need permission?"

"No! But, of course, they tell their parents where they are going."

"Can you vote?"

"No. But we've only had one election so far. And I think I read that women and blacks in America weren't able to vote for a long time."

Many of them defended the driving ban. They like being driven around, they insisted. Although one woman in the audience told the Washington Post's Glenn Kessler, "We are very happy and satisfied, but we would be happier and more satisfied if we could drive."

At first I was mystified that such intelligent, highly educated, ambitious women would be defending a system that denies them equal rights, but I soon realized that's not what they were doing at all. What they were doing was taking issue with the portrayal of them as powerless victims. They were also expressing a confidence that their society is changing. If there hadn't been school officials within earshot, they would probably have been even more direct in talking about the need for change, but the point came through anyway.

"What do you want to be 10 years from now?" I asked several of the students.

"Lawyer," said one.

"Banker."

"Ambassador," said Aram, the woman student who had been most aggressively refuting the notion that Saudi women don't have everything they want.

"Ambassador?" I asked. "Does Saudi Arabia have any women ambassadors, anywhere in the world?"

"No," she said. But Aram, who just a few minutes earlier had defended the fact that her country did not allow women to vote, told me she is convinced that her country is changing so much that Saudi Arabia will soon have women ambassadors.

Virtually all of the students wore fashionable western garb visible under their abayas. As I was talking to one of the students, her headscarf started to slip, eventually falling completely off. A school staffer came over to join the conversation, putting herself between me and the student. By the time the reporters were ushered out of the room, I noticed three women had let their headscarves fall off. That may not be a big deal anywhere else, but in Saudi Arabia it's a radical statement.

As I left the auditorium, I asked several students if I could email them. I was surprised by their addresses: "sweeteyes," "cuteygirl85," "blackrose," etc. There's something going on in Saudi Arabia.

Jonathan Karl is senior foreign affairs correspondent for ABC News.