Undersecretary of State Karen Hughes questioned Tuesday the Saudi ban on driving by women, telling a crowd of several hundred Saudi women, covered head to toe in black clothing, that it had negatively shaped the image of Saudi society in the United States.
"We in America take our freedoms very seriously," Hughes said. "I believe women should be free and equal participants in society. I feel that as an American woman that my ability to drive is an important part of my freedom."
Women in the audience applauded after she also mentioned that they should have a greater voice in the Saudi political system, including eventually receiving the right to vote.
Hughes hastened to add that Saudi society must change at its own pace and according to its own traditions, but she went significantly further in her statement than Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice did on a visit three months ago. Rice pressed for greater political freedoms for women but dismissed the subject of driving as "just a line that I have not wanted to cross."
Asked about the contrast between her comments and Rice's, Hughes said her remarks were part of a U.S. policy of "slowly advancing ideas" with the Saudis. "My job is to raise issues in, I hope, a respectful way, to help other countries understand concerns Americans have," she said.
Newly appointed to run public diplomacy efforts for the Bush administration, Hughes was on a week-long tour of the Middle East to improve the image of the United States, but the tables were turned Tuesday in meetings with Saudi students, journalists and officials.
During a meeting with top Saudi editors, Hughes pointedly noted that the United States was concerned that inflammatory literature intolerant of other religions and traced to the Saudi government had been found in American mosques. Hughes pressed the government to help "find room to respect people of different faiths and different faith traditions."
Hughes added that Americans were upset that Muslim clerics did not immediately condemn the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States. She urged Saudis "to speak out and be very vocal" when "you have someone committing these acts in the name of your faith."
Freedom House, which monitors civil and political rights around the world, reported this year that it had collected from more than a dozen mosques in the United States about 200 original documents that condemn democracy as anti-Islamic and assert that Muslims are religiously required to hate Christians and Jews.
U.S. Ambassador James C. Oberwetter said that he had raised the issue privately with Saudi officials but that Hughes was the first U.S. official to express concern about the literature in a public forum in the kingdom.
Khaled Maeena, editor in chief of the daily Arab News, said it was "quite a big deal" that Hughes spoke about the pamphlets, which he said were the work of a "small band of intolerant, bigoted people who have hijacked a religion and are getting away with it."
Many people who spoke with Hughes focused on Saudi Arabia's poor image in the United States, complaining especially about news media coverage that they said portrayed Saudi men as terrorists and Saudi women as abused and unhappy. Hughes raised the subject of driving in response to such a comment during the meeting with women at the private college of Dar al-Hekma. Hughes said later that the questions at the school "opened the door" for her to broach sensitive subjects in the U.S.-Saudi relationship. "It is important for them to understand that for many American women, driving is a symbol. We can't imagine not being able to drive ourselves to work," she told reporters traveling with her.
Women interviewed at the college said they were pleased that Hughes had raised the issue, but they appeared divided on the ban itself.
Fouzia Pasham, a gynecologist, defended the ban, saying women who drive in other countries have to keep "a good smiling face" as they are forced to shuttle around town picking up their children and running errands.
But a mother of four, who would give her name only as Tulien, said she had secretly learned to drive in the desert and was frustrated by the ban, even though she could afford two drivers. "We are very happy and satisfied, but we would be happier and more satisfied if we could drive," she said.