US media are being disingenuous in portraying Arab women as unhappy and wronged, a close aide to President George Bush on a PR visit to Saudi Arabia has been told. And it has come from the horse's mouth.
"We are happy. We want to show that image (but) the general image of the Arab woman in the American media is that she is not happy," a female student at Jeddah's private Dar al-Hekma University said during an encounter with US Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy Karen Hughes, drawing thunderous applause from colleagues.
"Your media is not really as fair as it used to be," came another voice from among the crowd of women clad in the black abaya who gathered in an amphitheatre on Tuesday to "exchange" views with the American visitor.
Students were given time off from classes for the event and nearly all 700 of them came to see Hughes, who was in Saudi Arabia as part of a tour also taking in Egypt and Turkey and which aimed at polishing America's battered image in the region.
As reporters accompanying Hughes on her tour listened, the girls - mostly Saudis but including some from other Arab countries - said they had had enough of being portrayed as deprived of any rights.
"I don't want to drive, because I have my own driver," one of them defiantly told American journalists.
Women in ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia are banned from driving or mixing in public with men other than relatives.
Karen Hughes (R) is on a PR visit
to some Arab countries
But "it is not an absolute wall" between men and women, one of the students insisted, as another grabbed the microphone to wonder why US media tar all Muslims with the terrorism brush.
Hughes was careful to tell her audience that "America should not seek to impose our will on Saudi Arabia".
She also applauded news in that day's local press that women would be allowed to work in Saudi Arabia, where only a limited number of professions are currently open to them.
Hughes overlooked the rest of the report, which referred to a new labour law allowing women to work "in all sectors compatible with their nature." The sectors have not been specified.
Not by force
The students of Dar al-Hekma were in no doubt that they would be able to work after graduating, even if they would not be able to drive to work.
"We can change, we are going to change, but not by force from outside," Leen Assassa, a 19-year-old student of interior design who holds dual Syrian and British nationality, later told AFP. She was covered from head to toe like her Saudi peers."
Students said they would be able
to work though not able to drive
America is trying to force its own opinion on us; the change will come from us," Assassa added.
Chamane Rahim, a French-educated social sciences professor, explained that the students don't cover their heads in class "as we're all women."
True, Saudi women still can't drive "but it will come soon, Insha-Allah (God willing)", she said.
Hughes confided she had been "surprised" by what she heard but also "impressed by their (the girls') outspokenness and intelligence".
"They clearly feel much a part of the debate in the society even though they don't have the right to vote nor to drive," she said.