JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia -- If Middle Eastern women could vote in American presidential elections, it's very likely that Laura Bush would be president.
Traveling throughout the region with the first lady the past several days has been eye-opening to those of us who take women's rights for granted. Although our exposure has been restricted to individuals and groups with whom Bush was meeting -- royalty and some regular folk in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Jordan -- there's no missing the admiration women here have for their American counterparts.
They respect our democratic freedoms -- not to be confused with our libertine ways -- and seek to expand their own roles in society. Bush, in her quiet way, is central to that mission.
The first lady doesn't get much credit as a feminist in the U.S., where many who claim to speak for women would scoff at that description. But here, make no mistake, Bush is a sister. And breast cancer awareness -- her official reason for visiting the region -- has become both a vehicle for women's empowerment and a locus for political action.
As women have found their voices in discussing a disease that was heretofore unmentionable, they have also discovered a new self-confidence that allows them to see themselves differently -- not just as victims, but as self-determining actors.
Lama al-Sulaiman, 41, a biochemist and diabetes researcher, as well as one of the first women elected to political office in Saudi Arabia, was also among the first Saudi women to speak openly of her disease. She was one of a dozen women to meet with Bush at a "Breaking the Silence" coffee in Jiddah.
Rather than suffer silently as women traditionally have in this part of the world, Sulaiman insisted on talking about her illness, which she described to me as "an excellent experience." She said talking was healing and that she was "nurtured through people's questions."
"I was like a Hollywood star," she said. "People invited me to groups to talk ... my life took on a new purpose."
That purpose included her election in 2005 to the board of the Jiddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry one week after her last chemotherapy treatment. Being a chamber board member may not seem like much in America, where a woman is running for president, but it is significant in Saudi Arabia, where women aren't allowed to vote. Sulaiman and three others were the first women to become Jiddah Chamber board members.
The Saudi women with whom I spoke were excited, too, about Hillary Clinton's run for the White House. At a private dinner with Princess Hessa, wife of Saudi King Abdullah, several women gathered around to ask about Hillary.
Political differences of degree seem to matter far less than the fact that a woman might become the leader of the free world. Those who were invited to the palace are, of course, sophisticated women of considerable means. Nevertheless, the frank talk in Saudi Arabia's royal parlors and in breast cancer clinics throughout the Middle East has a trickle-down effect.
Women's liberation through cancer is a hard sell, but change often evolves from pain. Bush's visit to these countries has been a boost for women hoping to gain traction amid ancient customs. Having the first lady join their circle carries a wallop in terms of moral support and influence, if not in immediate political results.
When Sulaiman asked Bush what she thought of Saudi women, the first lady answered with what even jaded reporters recognize as sincerity. Bush confessed to having had a stereotypical view of Saudi women and had assumed, given their head-to-toe coverings, that they would be difficult to communicate with. Instead, Bush said she felt "we have a sisterhood more than we would have thought between American women and Saudi women."
One of the Saudi women pointed to her black abaya and said, "These covers maybe are black, but they're transparent."
Later that day, after flying to Kuwait City, Bush met with a group of political women leaders at a salon called a (BEG ITAL)diwaniya(END ITAL). Some of the women ran for public office in June 2006, the first election in which women were allowed to vote after parliament granted women's suffrage.
No women won, but they did make a dent and are determined to defeat tribalism in Kuwait. As with all things in the Middle East, it's just a matter of time.