View of part of the Fujairah Corniche and the Hajar Mountains in the Background

Monday, October 29, 2007

Interview with Laura Bush: Arab Women, Scarves and Stereotypes

In an interview on Fox News Sunday, 28 October 2007, First Lady Laura Bush gave these reflections on her recent trip to the Middle East to promote breast cancer awareness. Here is what she had to say:

On Breast Cancer in the Middle East
“It was also a way for me to talk about something that Arab women traditionally have not been able to talk about. And what I found out when I was there was that they were very glad to talk about it, because it is true that breast cancer presents about 10 years younger in Arab women than it does here in the United States.

“And so because younger women are getting breast cancer, they don't know they have it until they're really into Stage 3 or 4, and so many more die there with breast cancer than do in the United States, because early detection is the only thing we have — the closest thing we have to a cure.”

On Arab Women, Scarves and Stereotypes
“And to be perfectly frank, I got an idea of what Arab women were like that I didn't have. I always, I think, sort of subconsciously thought the cover was a way to — I felt like I couldn't reach Arab women because they were covered.”

“And what I found out when I met them is they're just like us. I mean, they are — especially the ones I met, who were breast cancer survivors and doctors and researchers.”

“I met woman who was covered, totally covered — just her eyes were exposed — at a round table called Breaking the Silence, and she wants to start an Internet support group, which — we have a lot of Internet support groups for breast cancer survivors here, but none in Arabic.”

On Her Ambassadorial Role
“It took me a while to realize what a platform I had, and that I could be the one to go to the Middle East and talk about breast cancer and literally bring up a topic that was a taboo topic to talk about, very much the way it was in the United States 25 years or 30 years ago.”

On Criticism for Putting on a Head Scarf
Laura Bush was criticised for putting on a scarf given to her by a Saudi doctor. The Weekly Standard reported ‘That she would oblige her hosts by wearing a shmata,’ which is Yiddish for a scarf, ‘on her head is a tacit endorsement of Islam's subjugation of women.’”

Laura Bush’s response:
“Well, I did not see it that way at all. In fact, I'd had the meeting with them totally uncovered. I mean, you saw other photographs, obviously… And they saw this as giving me a gift from their culture. And it was the scarf with the pink ribbons and the pink edging on it, the breast cancer scarf, that I put on.”

“I will say that I told them that I had always felt like they were closed to me, that I wouldn't be able to reach them because of the way they're covered, and one of the women said to me — she said, ‘You know, I may be all dressed in black, but I am transparent.’”

“And what they were saying to me is they want to reach out. They want American women to know what they're like. And these women do not see covering as some sort of subjugation of women, this group of women that I was with.
That's their culture. That's their tradition. That's a religious choice of theirs.”

“Now, I did meet, on the other hand, in Kuwait, where women just got the vote in 2005, with a group of women activists, several of them who had run for office the first parliamentary election after women got the vote — didn't win, any of them, but they made the first step, certainly, by getting in the political process.
And in that meeting, very few women were covered. And they don't feel like they have to be. But you know, I think we all have these stereotypes of each other, Americans and Arabs, and it's a really good thing to be able to break those stereotypes down and get to know each other.”

The full transcript of this interview is at this link:
‘Transcript: Laura Bush on ‘Fox News Sunday’ Chris Wallace, Sunday October 28, 2007.

Image: Laura Bush