Katha Pollitt in The Nation:
I thought President Obama’s Cairo speech was basically fine: begin anew, extend the hand, reject “crude stereotypes” all around, turn the page on the Christian triumphalism of the Bush years. But there’s no denying that the section on women’s rights was rather minimal, just three paragraphs, compared with his long discourse on Israel and Palestine; and to my American ears its priorities were a bit odd. You would think the biggest issue for Muslim women is that someone is preventing them from wearing a headscarf: “The US 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,” he said. “I reject the view of some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal.” Fair enough, but that woman is choosing. What about Saudi or Iranian women, who are forced by law to cover? Obama noted that countries where women are well educated tend to be more prosperous and promised American aid for women’s literacy and microloans. These are both good things, especially in desperately poor and underdeveloped countries like Afghanistan; but face it, to become full participants in modern societies women need more than a grade school education and a sewing machine. They need their rights. In fact, some Muslim countries, like Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, already have large numbers of highly educated women–in Iran, as in America, more young women go to college than men. But those women are prevented from working to their capacity, or even at all, by religiously motivated sex discrimination. In Saudi Arabia, women can’t even work in lingerie stores. By a quirk of the gender-apartheid regulations, only men can sell ladies’ underwear. So much for “modesty”: when there’s money to be made from women, you can be sure the theocrats will figure out a reason that God wants it to go into men’s pockets.