Karen Hughes has her work cut out for her. She's the undersecretary of state assigned to persuade foreigners, particularly Muslims, to love us. On her "maiden voyage" to the Middle East this week, she's in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, trying to win friends and influence people. This requires a sail through the Scylla and Charybdis of multicultural paradox.
As a professional woman, she embodies Western emancipation and stands as a bold rebuke to Muslim misogynists who are determined to keep women in their place. She wears a pants suit like a woman who wants men to treat her like a man. Muslim women who have carved out careers will no doubt see her as a champion for women's rights. Women who cheerfully tolerate the indignities of an aggressively male religion and the men who want to keep it that way will see in her all they hate about America. For them, freedom is frightening. This is the most difficult of the issues Karen Hughes faces.
Women are a dilemma for Islam. Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, urged his country in the 1920s to fully emancipate women, arguing that the Turks would never catch up with the rest of the world if they modernized only half the population. He was right, but the task hasn't been easy, nor is it complete. "The emancipation of women, more than any other single issue, is the touchstone of difference between modernization and Westernization," writes Bernard Lewis, the Middle Eastern scholar, in his book, "What Went Wrong." He continues: "The emancipation is Westernization; for both traditional conservatives and radical fundamentalists it is neither necessary nor useful, but noxious, a betrayal of true Islamic values."
As a result, even where many Muslim women enjoy liberation misogynist practices continue, and even follow fundamentalist Muslim emigrants to Europe, particularly Germany and The Netherlands.
Muslim men, who feel their masculinity threatened when women gain equal political, economic and social status under the law, combine contempt for women with contempt for Western values. Women who have worn Western dress for years, or who yearn to do so, feel renewed pressure today to put on the abaya, the burka, the chador, the headscarf or the veil.