Where Karen Hughes fell flat, Clinton shines

When Karen Hughes, George W. Bush’s undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, went to Dar al-Hekma College for women in Saudi Arabia in 2005, she was challenged by audience members when she said she hoped they’d one day be able to drive and "fully participate in society." When an audience member took issue by saying, ...

-/AFP/Getty Images
-/AFP/Getty Images
-/AFP/Getty Images

When Karen Hughes, George W. Bush's undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, went to Dar al-Hekma College for women in Saudi Arabia in 2005, she was challenged by audience members when she said she hoped they'd one day be able to drive and "fully participate in society." When an audience member took issue by saying, "The general image of the Arab woman is that she isn't happy. Well, we're all pretty happy," the room filled with applause.

Contrast that with the rock-star reception Secretary Clinton received when she visited Dar al-Hekma College on Tuesday, where students flocked for her autograph and she was described as the world's "most powerful and popular woman." Although Clinton expressed support for women's education and participation in economic development and asked to hear the students' views on women's rights, the audience queried her about foreign policy and security, not women's issues. (The New York Times did report that the college seemed to strictly control who got to lob questions.)

Still, maybe for female students at elite Saudi colleges, the freedom to get a driver's license and wear what you want in public aren't the top issues on their minds. For example, one student asked why the United States was trying to stop Iran from developing nuclear bombs even though Israel has them. Or perhaps, as one freshman told the New York Times, "Maybe because it was Hillary Clinton, people wanted to ask her about issues bigger than whether Saudi women can drive."

When Karen Hughes, George W. Bush’s undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, went to Dar al-Hekma College for women in Saudi Arabia in 2005, she was challenged by audience members when she said she hoped they’d one day be able to drive and "fully participate in society." When an audience member took issue by saying, "The general image of the Arab woman is that she isn’t happy. Well, we’re all pretty happy," the room filled with applause.

Contrast that with the rock-star reception Secretary Clinton received when she visited Dar al-Hekma College on Tuesday, where students flocked for her autograph and she was described as the world’s "most powerful and popular woman." Although Clinton expressed support for women’s education and participation in economic development and asked to hear the students’ views on women’s rights, the audience queried her about foreign policy and security, not women’s issues. (The New York Times did report that the college seemed to strictly control who got to lob questions.)

Still, maybe for female students at elite Saudi colleges, the freedom to get a driver’s license and wear what you want in public aren’t the top issues on their minds. For example, one student asked why the United States was trying to stop Iran from developing nuclear bombs even though Israel has them. Or perhaps, as one freshman told the New York Times, "Maybe because it was Hillary Clinton, people wanted to ask her about issues bigger than whether Saudi women can drive."

So what do Saudi women really want? You might have to ask pollster David Pollock, author of the recent FP article, "Saudi Arabia by the Numbers." (Or for an anecdotal take, read the fictional account of a young, female, lesbian, Shiite Saudi student in the book The Others, written by a 20-something Saudi woman under the pseudonym Seba al-Herz.)

Preeti Aroon was copy chief at Foreign Policy from 2009 to 2016 and was an FP assistant editor from 2007 to 2009. Twitter: @pjaroonFP

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