I have tried doggedly not to write about it. I was just going to let it go by. By my men friends, some gleefully and some angrily, refused to leave me in peace.
"Why," they have been asking me over and over the last few days, "aren't you saying anything about the Saudi Arabians' discriminating against Rosalynn Carter?"
Then, as I was gritting my teeth, trying to forget that Rosalynn had had to dine with the royal women, away from her husband, and walked appropriately behind Jimmy while in Riyadh, at that moment Gloria Steinem appeared before my eyes on TV. The Saudi incidents just showed, she said, what a male chauvinist Jimmy Carter really was and how if it had been blacks or Jews he would have spoken up. This was followed by an uproar among militant feminists in Los Angeles.
As a feminist, I'll probably have to be explaining this away for years, but I have to say that President and Mrs. Carter did the only right and possible thing.
I remember so well my own first trip to the Arabian peninsula in 1973 and my guide, Hisham. He made such great efforts to be "liberated," and he tried so hard to be fair with this strange creature Allah had sent him.
He even took me once, with his wife and daughter, of course, to their little summer home on "The Creek" outside of Jeddah. When we all innocently went swimming, I felt the same sudden burning shame at my revealed body - in a world of hidden women - that virtually all Western women initially experience there. It was the Garden of Eden revisited, but his agonies at trying to be "liberated" were clearly far, far greater than mine.
Gently but persistently, I let them know what I thought about "woman's place" there. In court, two women's words equaled one man's. Women could not divorce and had virtually no legal rights.
When I learned that most of the women in the university were studying psychology, it did not surprise me, although it did strike me rather odd that, since no man can look at their faces (something that apparently drives the desert man to utter madness), the women saw male teachers only on TV outlets.
Nor did I hold my tongue when one Saudi official, trying to explain to me that women were not permitted to divorce, said it was because "they would divorce all the time."
"I'll certainly believe that," I retorted drily.
But there are the deeper questions of Rosalynn Carter's visit. And these involve not only deeply imbedded cultural patterns, developed in a hostile desert over centuries of tribal warfare, but also not unimportant questions of what should be ignored or spoken out on when it comes to diplomacy.
As a professional and not a wife, for instance, I was treated with exquisite respect. Moreover, it was clear from the first moment that they judged me on a wholly different scale from that on which they judged their own women. Finally, one day, an Arab male intellectual explained it to me.
"You were not raised under Islam or under our rules," he said. "You are a Western woman with different training and beliefs. We respect that, and you are free to do as you believe in our land."
As a matter of fact, except for the unwise practice of walking around the streets there alone, I was free to do as I wished. In their own way, they were respecting our beliefs, and I felt it incumbent upon me, even while I let them know clearly my feelings about their women, to respect theirs.
Therefore, when the Carters visited that strange desert kingdom, it seems to me that, regardless of their feelings, it would have been absurd and insulting for him to make a point of where Rosalynn ate. Not only would it have been gratuitous, it also would have been self-defeating, not only in terms of oil and Palestinians but also in terms of women.
The educated Saudi men already feel sensitive and ashamed of their treatment of women and are trying to work in their own way against the forces of the past. Insults only drive things backward.
But there is something else. It does not make me an Aunt Tomasina to say that occasionally even we women who feel strongly about women's rights should be big enough to put aside our particular feminist interests in the interest of something momentarily greater. I do not believe it incumbent upon the world to excuse us, like children, from the grace of good manners toward other cultures on formal occasions.
We are not "broken records" about feminism, we are not only women. We are sophisticated human beings who, when necessary, can take ourselves out of our own skins and rise above nationalism, chauvinism and even sex.