Karen Hughes, the US presidential envoy visited Saudi Arabia for a day during a tour of the region and met with female students al Dar al Hekma College for girls in Jeddah.
As expected, the meeting proved controversial and saw the students express views that appeared, for the most part, aimed at provoking the diplomat who indicated she was pleased with their “intelligent and frank” responses. However, were the girls honest in their discussion with Hughes? Quizzed about employment opportunities and the driving debate in Saudi Arabia and asked to give their opinions on US foreign policy, the students responded antagonistically as if they were asking themselves “Who is this western woman who wants to impose her views on us?”
One girl indicated, “We lead happy lives, contrary to media reports on Arab women” amidst general applause. Another girl said, “I do not need a car; I have a chauffeur” while a fellow student wondered, “Why does the US media depict us negatively?”
In answer to the last question, it is because the statements of your colleagues which backfire in the global media and because your classmate did not heed the cabinet’s decision, a day earlier, promoting women’s participation in the workforce and failed to notice that King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz established a center for national dialogue which held a notorious session on “women’s issues”.
The student which rejected the right to drive her own vehicle because she can hire a chauffeur was unaware that the average income in Saudi Arabia is $1500 which does not allow many the luxury of hiring a driver. She definitely did not hear of Dr. Mohammed al Zalfa and Dr. Abdullah Bukhari, Shura Council members who calculated the vast sum of money the Kingdom would save if it did without foreign drivers.
Ghadir Abdullah, a 21-year-old student at Dar Al Hakim who attended the meetings expressed her sorrow at the lack of honest views, which “do not reflect their real beliefs. They are not happy about not driving. It is only a reaction which I cannot explain, except to say that they reacted to Hughes because she is an American.”
“Wishing for a better life is always discussed in private”, she added.
For her part, Afnan Qattan, aged 22, said, “I do not think Hughes’ remarks were insulting or wrong. Our problems are real; the students unjustly attacked her.” After the meeting, “most girls justified their statements by saying Hughes was American”, she continued. “If I get the chance to speak to the diplomat, I will support much of what she has to say”, Qattan revealed.
Would it come at as a surprise if I tell you the female students at Dar al Hekma speak two languages and follow the US curriculum? What if I revealed that some are more fluent in English than Arabic?
Of course, it is not surprising that students expressed their views as they are entitled to do so. What is disappointing, however, is that their education and the relative openness their social status allows did not encourage them to speak objectively and in an enlightened tone in front of foreign visitors and the international media. The difference is immense between a national awareness that analyzes problems and focus on the future and a naïve national consciousness that only produces applause and exaltation.