There was a great deal to admire in President Obama's 55 minute speech in Cairo. It was frank in some areas such as his admissions concerning Iraq and his insistence on the end of the expansion of Israeli settlements. It was a little confrontational in some areas as in his insistence on the Arab recognition of the state of Israel and the need to root out fundamentalist terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It was optimistic as he appealed to the world's youth to help forge a new global peace. But it was hopelessly naive in his approach to women's rights.
How in the world do you talk about the value of educating women when a13 year old rape victim is stoned to death for adultery, in a stadium, surrounded by a thousand screaming men. Does insisting on respect for religious tradition, as Obama did in his speech, also mean countenancing the rape of girls and condemning them for their own rape, or the hanging of gays, or the notion of 'honor' killings, or contract marriages, or laws restricting the free movement of women, or laws making women and their children male property?
The fact is these extreme attitudes towards women are completely incompatible with Western values concerning human rights. Glossing over them and emphasizing education and micro financing of women's initiatives is disingenous and unproductive. Castigating unnamed Western countries for placing restrictions on Islamic dress is just plain pandering to mysoginist fundamentalist interests. Especially when there is no similar chastisement for the blatant human rights issues involving women and children in Islamic countries.
I don't see how we can hope to establish a meaningful global community, with liberty and justice for all people, by ignoring aspects of religious groups whose dogma runs completely counter to these very same values. Educating girls will only make a difference if those girls are allowed to be educated. There are still too many countries where going to school is life threatening issue for girls, or for that matter, where life itself is threatening for girls.
The status of women and girls in the Islamic world is not going to go away just because Israel and Palestine hammer out a two state solution or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan come to a successful solution. It will be there simmering, with all the questions it poses for freedom of religious expression against the notion of full human rights for all people.
In this Cairo speech President Obama was merely putting lip stick on a pig when it comes to the rights of women in the Islamic world. He would have been better served sticking strictly to foreign policy and regional politics and saving the human rights issues to his own domestic scene where his own record is starting to look suspect. Preventive detention? The Detainee Photographic Records Protection Act of 2009? Refusal to move forward on DADT? No torture commission? What gives?