A story of the king and the first lady
With something less than gratitude—how does one feel grateful for mercy when none should have been required in the first place?—Westerners are nonetheless relieved.
It seems obvious that the king’s decision was influenced in part by pressures both from the international community, including the United States, and within Saudi Arabia, where some writers and others bravely expressed outrage and embarrassment.
I would like to propose another possible factor less easily assessed—first lady Laura Bush’s October journey to Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries to promote breast cancer awareness, research and treatment.
In Saudi Arabia, the first lady met with the king and his wife, Princess Hessa, as Mrs. Bush launched the Saudi portion of the U.S.-Middle East Partnership for Breast Cancer Awareness and Research. Other participating countries include Jordan and the United Arab Emirates.
The trip, while officially aimed at improving women’s health (an acceptable and “safe” first-lady enterprise), was in fact a brilliant diplomatic maneuver in the arena of women’s rights. Here’s why:
In Saudi Arabia, where women’s participation in society is severely limited—no driving, no voting, no mixing with unrelated men—it’s not so easy to directly address women’s rights. You can’t just say to the king, “You know, Abdullah, you really should let women vote and drive and mingle with men anytime they want to.”
He should, of course, but that’s none of our concern, from the palace perspective. Moreover, external conversion doesn’t work very well, we’ve noticed.
What one can (do in Saudi Arabia is talk indirectly about less controversial issues such as women’s health. Who isn’t for good health? The Wahhabi branch of Islam that informs Saudi government and social policy might mean that women can’t wear miniskirts in the public square, but clerics haven’t yet said: Women deserve to die of breast cancer. Even so, women’s health has suffered as a byproduct of the very laws that restrict them in the broader society. Thus, health is a women’s rights issue. A discussion about breast cancer in Saudi Arabia is a discussion about women’s rights.
Religious belief thwarts women’s health in several ways. Until relatively recently, Saudi women wouldn’t say the word “breast” because it would have been deemed inappropriate. Many didn’t self-examine because such familiarity was viewed as a religious violation. Some didn’t go to the doctor because they are modest and most doctors are men.
Consequently, most women (80 percent) in the Middle East, where breast cancer strikes 10 years earlier than in other parts of the world, were diagnosed in advanced stages of cancer—too late for treatment. They simply died.
Thanks to the first lady’s trip, which received wide media coverage throughout the Middle East, women are increasingly speaking up, coming forward and seeking help.
In the past two months, more women have been visiting health clinics, according to the U.S. State Department. At the Abdullatif Cancer Screening Center in Riyadh, which Bush toured, the number of women getting breast cancer screenings has increased from five per day to more than 25, and there’s a three-month waiting list. Because of high demand, the center will soon increase screenings to 35 per day.
A new phase of awareness begins in February, when the U.S.-Saudi Partnership and the Saudi Cancer Society, together with the Susan G. Komen for the Cure organization, will make a four-city swing around Saudi Arabia.
Americans, who take breast cancer awareness for granted, also take Laura Bush for granted and underestimate her powers. As witness to her meetings with King Abdullah and others, I can testify that the first lady’s personal touch is both deft and profound. What her quiet manner conceals is a fierce spirit; what it reveals is respect for others and the understanding that baby steps precede great strides.
There’s no way of knowing what compelled King Abdullah to spare a young woman 200 lashes, but we do know that America’s first lady had his ear for a little while.
It can’t have hurt that he listened.