Just For Men: Obama's Speech To Muslim World All But Ignores Women

Illustration for article titled Just For Men: Obama's Speech To Muslim World All But Ignores Women

Yesterday, President Barack Obama gave his long-awaited speech at Cairo University, attempting to show the Muslim world the new face of American diplomacy. One thing that stayed the same? The amount of lip-service paid to women's rights.


It wasn't that long ago that Obama's Secretary of State-to-be, Hillary Clinton, was saying how this Administration was going to be different when it comes to how we treat women's issues in the pantheon of foreign policy. In her confirmation hearing, Clinton told Senator Barbara Boxer:

And I want to pledge to you that as secretary of state I view these issues as central to our foreign policy, not as adjunct or auxiliary or in any way lesser than all of the other issues that we have to confront. [emphasis added]

In an article I wrote for the Spring issue of Ms., I explored the idea — first popularized by First Lady Hillary Clinton, that women's rights are human rights and that this Administration would treat the that way.

For Hillary Clinton, the opportunity to make women's issues central to foreign policy is a mission come true. Back in 1995, she gave a famous speech at the U.N. Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, where she said, "If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women's rights and women's rights are human rights, once and for all."

It seems, however, that it might take just a little longer to have that dream realized.

In his speech yesterday, which touched on everything from the Israel-Palestinian conflict, to the United States' conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, to religious freedom and democracy promotion, Obama did take a moment to touch on women's issues — as pretty much completely separate from all those other issues.

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.


Hmm. Let's see how this differs from the Bush Administration. Micro-finance? Been there. Literacy and education expansion? Done that. Dissing the French ban on hijabs in public schools? What year is this again?

Somehow, between all his speech writers, foreign policy wonks and consultations with the State Department, there managed to be no mention of the horrors that women and girls face every day in some countries in the region — be it child marriage or FGM or lack of basic freedoms of movement and association — or the role that those issues play in democracy promotion, economic development, prosperity or religious freedom. And it's not like they don't know how to write a speech like that — because, again, they did it for Hillary Clinton's confirmation hearing.

Our foreign policy must reflect our deep commitment to help millions of oppressed people around the world. And of particular concern to me is the plight of women and girls, who comprise the majority of the world's unhealthy, unschooled, unfed, and unpaid. If half the world's population remains vulnerable to economic, political, legal and social marginalization, our hope of advancing democracy and prosperity is in serious jeopardy. The United States must be an unequivocal and unwavering voice in support of women's rights in every country on every continent.


An unequivocal and unwavering voice, that is, from the safety and isolation of Washington when fewer people are listening.

President Obama Addresses Muslim World In Cairo [Washington Post]

Related: A New State of Mind [Ms.]

Related reading: Obama Befriends The Hijab [Salon]
Let Women Wear the Hijab: The Emptiness of Obama's Cairo Speech [UN Dispatch]
Obama On Women's Rights in Cairo [The American Prospect]
Obama, Gender & the Muslim World [The Kitchen Table via Feministing]
Liz Cheney: Speech 'Missed Some Fundamental Points' [Morning Joe]
Throwing Women Under The Bus [The Economist]
A Muslim Woman's Perspective on Obama's Speech [double X]


Earlier: Hillary Clinton Talked The (Girl) Talk At Senate Confirmation



I think its difficult, in a single speech, to address every issue equally. Women's rights are a HUGE deal, but they are also a major cultural and religious issue in the Middle East. It's a contentious point, deeply ingrained in our collective cultures, and I'm not sure that this speech nor tackling it in that way would help at all.

It has to be deeper, more consistent, subtler form of pressure and change. Otherwise you'll just get the extremists using it as a way to prove that we're being imperialistic.

I want change, and in a perfect world, such issues as entrenched misogyny would be fixed with a speech. But that's just not realistic, nor will actually accomplish anything.