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Peter Daou

Peter Daou

Posted: June 4, 2009 07:41 AM

Let Women Wear the Hijab: The Emptiness of Obama's Cairo Speech

What's Your Reaction?

I know many will gush over President Obama's Cairo speech and I'm likely swimming against the tide of the media and my fellow Democrats and progressives. But reading the transcript, I was struck by two things:

1. Aside from a few platitudes, it is disappointingly weak on human rights and specifically women's rights.

2. It betrays a naiveté, perhaps feigned, about how the Arab world works.

I sometimes preface my posts by explaining that my Mideast perspective is that of an American-Lebanese-Christian-Jew who grew up in Muslim West Beirut at the height (or should I say depth) of the Lebanese civil war. The tumultuous and bloody intersection of religions and geopolitical interests is painfully real to me.

Yes, Obama is targeting the Arab 'street' and global public opinion - but to the corrupt regimes that dominate that region of the world, his oration means virtually nothing. Repression and suppression will go on uninterrupted. And to those whose abiding hatred of Israel (and thus America) is absolute, Obama's words will be seen as empty and hypocritical.

Egyptian blogger Hossam el-Hamalawy explains:

Right before he took off from DC, on what the media has been depicting as some "odyssey," to address the Muslim World from Cairo, President Obama had described the 81-year-old Egyptian President Mubarak as a "force for stability." This week Cairo and its twin city Giza have been a showcase of what this "stability" cost.


The capital is under occupation. Security troops are deployed in the main public squares and metro stations. Citizens were detained en masse and shops were told to close down in Bein el-Sarayat area, neighboring Cairo University, where Obama will be speaking. In Al-Azhar University, the co-host of the "historical speech," State Security police raided and detained at least 200 foreign students, held them without charges in unknown locations.

Is there an overarching purpose to Obama's speech? Is it to repair our image after eight years of a radical rightwing administration? Of course. But if the goal is to repair our image, then how about shunning the barbaric concept of indefinite detention? How about heeding the increasingly distressed calls of those who view the new administration's actions in the realm of civil liberties as a dangerous, disturbing, and precedent-setting affirmation of Bush's worst excesses?

Glenn Greenwald writes:

The White House is actively supporting a new bill jointly sponsored by Sens. Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman -- called The Detainee Photographic Records Protection Act of 2009 -- that literally has no purpose other than to allow the government to suppress any "photograph taken between September 11, 2001 and January 22, 2009 relating to the treatment of individuals engaged, captured, or detained after September 11, 2001, by the Armed Forces of the United States in operations outside of the United States."


What kind of a country passes a law that has no purpose other than to empower its leader to suppress evidence of the torture it inflicted on people? Read the language of the bill; it doesn't even hide the fact that its only objective is to empower the President to conceal evidence of war crimes.

That this exact scenario is now happening in the U.S. is all the more remarkable given that the President who is demanding these new suppression powers is the same one who repeatedly vowed "to make his administration the most open and transparent in history." After noting the tentative steps Obama has taken to increase transparency, the generally pro-Obama Washington Post Editorial Page today observed: "what makes the administration's support for the photographic records act so regrettable" is that "Mr. Obama runs the risk of taking two steps back in his quest for more open government."

What makes all of this even worse is that it is part of a broader trend whereby the Government simply retroactively changes the law whenever it decides it does not want to abide by it.

Glenn has been documenting - and railing against - dozens of similar instances. I echoed his concerns in a recent post:

Setting aside all the campaign slogans about hope and change, what Obama really signifies is a razor sharp break from Bush, Cheney, Yoo, Rice, Rumsfeld, Addington, Libby, Bybee et al. After eight years of damage to the fabric of our Constitution and our nation, the entire point of a new face, a smart, youthful, inspiring Democratic president is to completely and totally reject the Bush years, to reject the lawless behavior, the Orwellian rationales, the blatant disregard of the Constitution. Neglecting to do so, and leaving any doubt about where Democrats stand on these issues, is profoundly detrimental to the country.

Take the issue of women's rights, addressed in Obama's Cairo speech with the most tepid language:

"The U.S. government has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear the hijab, and to punish those who would deny it."


"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."

Is that a joke?

With women being stoned, raped, abused, battered, mutilated, and slaughtered on a daily basis across the globe, violence that is so often perpetrated in the name of religion, the most our president can speak about is protecting their right to wear the hijab? I would have been much more heartened if the preponderance of the speech had been about how in the 21st century, we CANNOT tolerate the pervasive abuse of our mothers and sisters and daughters.

I return to the example of Aisha Ibrahim Duhulow:

13-year old Aisha Ibrahim Duhulow was stoned to death in Somalia by insurgents because she was raped. Reports indicate that was raped by three men while traveling by foot to visit her grandmother in conflict capital, Mogadishu. When she went to the authorities to report the crime, they accused her of adultery and sentenced her to death. Aisha was forced into a hole in a stadium of 1,000 onlookers as 50 men buried her up to the neck and cast stones at her until she died. When some of the people at the stadium tried to save her, militia opened fire on the crowd, killing a boy who was a bystander.


A witness who spoke to the BBC's Today programme said she had been crying and had to be forced into a hole before the stoning, reported to have taken place in a football stadium. ... She said: 'I'm not going, I'm not going. Don't kill me, don't kill me.' "A few minutes later more than 50 men tried to stone her." The witness said people crowding round to see the execution said it was "awful".

Enough with the perpetual campaign. True justice, true peace, these are earned through courageous decisions and bold actions. Real truth to power.

If we are to fix America's image in the world and if we are to heal the planet's myriad ills, it will not be done through contrite kumbaya speeches about how we are all one world and how we should all coexist peacefully, no matter whether the remarks are delivered in Cleveland or Cairo. It will be done by leading through example, by righting the many wrongs here at home, by seeking justice and fairness for all, by doing what is right, not saying what sounds pleasing to the media elite and the pliable punditocracy.

 

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