If Only Muslim Leaders Held Obama's Beliefs on Women's Rights

The president's speech could push Muslim countries to openly debate the ideas in it.

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By Mary Kate Cary, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

I watched most of the president's speech at Cairo University this morning live on television, while getting the kids ready for school. It was remarkable in many ways. I hope that it gives people within Muslim countries the ability to openly debate some of the ideas in it, and maybe to move forward within their own societies—toward less violence and more tolerance. It's probably supper time right now in many of those nations, and I wonder what the conversation is like around some of those dinner tables tonight.

When the president was speaking about democracy, I couldn't help but think of all the Muslim women listening. From the White House transcript of the speech:

But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. These are not just American ideas; they are human rights. And that is why we will support them everywhere. (Applause.)

The president was speaking in the context of his support for democracy around the world, and the need to defend the human rights of all people. He was talking about governments and the rule of law—but I was thinking of the lives of many Muslim women. The rights he listed are not ones enjoyed by women living under repressive regimes: the ability to speak their minds, to have confidence in the equal administration of justice, and the freedom to live as they choose. For Muslim women living under the Taliban, especially, human rights like these are simply non-existent.

Then, a few minutes later, the president went further and spoke directly about women:

The sixth issue that I want to address is women's rights. (Applause.) I know—I know—and you can tell from this audience, that there is a healthy debate about this issue. I reject the view of some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal, but I do believe that a woman who is denied an education is denied equality. (Applause.) And it is no coincidence that countries where women are well educated are far more likely to be prosperous...

I am convinced that our daughters can contribute just as much to society as our sons. (Applause.) Our common prosperity will be advanced by allowing all humanity—men and women—to reach their full potential. I do not believe that women must make the same choices as men in order to be equal, and I respect those women who choose to live their lives in traditional roles. But it should be their choice.

And that is why the United States will partner with any Muslim-majority country to support expanded literacy for girls, and to help young women pursue employment through micro-financing that helps people live their dreams. (Applause.)

What would be truly remarkable: if we could just get a Muslim leader to say the same thing about women in their society.

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