Kathleen Parker
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WASHINGTON -- Saudi King Abdullah's pardon of the young woman known as "Qatif Girl" -- who was gang-raped and then sentenced to 200 lashes and six months imprisonment for "improper mingling" -- is welcome news.

With something less than gratitude -- how does one feel grateful for mercy when none should have been required in the first place? -- Westerners are nonetheless relieved.

It seems obvious that the king's decision was influenced in part by pressures both from the international community, including the United States, and within Saudi Arabia, where some writers and others bravely expressed outrage and embarrassment.

I would like to propose another possible factor less easily assessed -- first lady Laura Bush's October journey to Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries to promote breast cancer awareness, research and treatment.

In Saudi Arabia, the first lady met with the king and his wife Princess Hessa as Mrs. Bush launched the Saudi portion of the U.S.-Middle East Partnership for Breast Cancer Awareness and Research. Other participating countries include Jordan and the United Arab Emirates.

The trip, while officially aimed at improving women's health (an acceptable and "safe" first-lady enterprise), was in fact a brilliant diplomatic maneuver in the arena of women's rights. Here's why:

In Saudi Arabia, where women's participation in society is severely limited -- no driving, no voting, no mixing with unrelated men -- it's not so easy to directly address women's rights. You can't just say to the king, "You know, Abdullah, you really should let women vote and drive and mingle with men anytime they want to."

He should, of course, but that's none of our concern, from the palace perspective. Moreover, external conversion doesn't work very well, we've noticed.

What one can do in Saudi Arabia is talk indirectly about less controversial issues such as women's health. Who isn't for good health? The Wahhabi branch of Islam that informs Saudi government and social policy may mean that women can't wear miniskirts in the public square, but clerics haven't yet said: Women deserve to die of breast cancer.

Even so, women's health has suffered as a byproduct of the very laws that restrict them in the broader society. Thus, health is a women's rights issue. A discussion about breast cancer in Saudi Arabia is a discussion about women's rights.

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Kathleen Parker

Kathleen Parker is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.
 
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