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Jewish World Review Jan. 21, 2003 / 14 Shevat, 5763

Diana West

Diana West
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When understanding the East means losing the West | Breaking news from Saudi Arabia: "U.S. women interact with local populace." According to the Arab News, actual "female" Americans of the Saudi-American Exchange Program met with a bona fide Saudi "female date farmer." The reason? "To promote understanding and encourage dialogue between the two sides," Arab News reports.

It was a success, naturally. Understanding was busting out all over Ye Olde Saudi Date Ranch, while dialogue also occurred -- at least with the state-controlled press. "The portrayal in the Western media and culture is that Muslim women, especially in Saudi Arabia, are oppressed and subservient," said one American participant. "Many Americans believed that women here were forced to wear the traditional abaya and veil. However, I have come to learn that the women here wear the veil by choice." While a Saudi censor couldn't have said it better, this quotation is attributed to Lorna Hadley, a student at Yale University School of Public Health.

And, judging by the comments of fellow student Amelia Shaw, a fine choice wearing the veil is: "I thought women, by wearing the veil, would be silenced, and that symbolized not being allowed any verbal expression. However, when I did wear it, I felt free from being looked at as a sexual object." What a relief. Thanks to Saudi-American exchange, it now becomes clear that, all this time, while Western women were junking their corsets, bobbing their hair, lifting their hemlines, donning slacks, burning bras and discovering the easy cling of stretch denim, they really should have been shopping for the perfect abaya. And why not? As Maryvonne Van Der Bauwede, a "jewelry designer from France," told the Arab News, "It's very comfortable and beautifies the eyes."

Me, I'll take Maybelline. Not that it matters. In fact, maybe we should leave the exchange students to their continuing adventures -- "The Preppy Handbook" meets "Let's Go Mecca and Medina" -- and consider the more serious import of this kind of cross-cultural "understanding."

It's one thing to learn about Muslim dress -- which, despite all the "understanding" this program has managed to promote, is about as voluntary a choice for your average Saudi gal as her religion. It's quite another when presumably liberty-loving American women become apologists for a sartorial brand of servitude that, of course, is just one oppressive fact of life for women living under Islamic sharia law as legal, professional and social nonentities. And another thing: A woman may not look like a "sex object" when she dresses up like a haystack, but she still looks like an object, period -- one wholly devoid of a recognizable human shape.

Or maybe that's my Western bias showing. It slips through now and again, particularly as cross-cultural "understanding" catches on to a potentially dangerous point. I refer not just to the fashion non-sense of grad students on a junket. While it's easy to poke fun at such exploitable naivete, the impulse to understand is no laughing matter when it requires drastic compromises on principles of life and liberty.

When cultures really clash, outreach becomes less a tool of coexistence than of transformation. Such attempts, in other words, may end up undermining the basic precepts of the Free World. This becomes more obviously apparent in the alarming effort in the West to understand, perhaps even accommodate, what may be best described as a cult of death found in regions to the East.

Maybe it's just a feeling that comes from observing the shocked-no-more responses to the latest suicide-bombing in Israel, or from reading the smooth reportage of a New York Times article on Sri Lanka's "masters" of suicide bombing and their territory ("a place steeped in the notion of self-sacrifice"), but it does seem that suicide bombers aren't quite the pariahs they once were. British enthusiasm over a recent conference on Palestinian Authority reform only intensifies the queasiness.

Among other things, the PA agreed to a "cease-fire" against "pre-1967" Israel. This means that citizens of post-1967 Israel -- namely, the West Bank, Gaza Strip and eastern Jerusalem -- remain what Palestinians consider fair game. Of course, the cease-fire expires after Israeli elections this month, and then it's back to suicide-bombings as usual throughout Israel -- post-1967, pre-1967, A.D., B.C., whatever. In Great Britain today, this counts as progress.

Is it? Jan. 7 was "Palestinian Martyrs' Day," an occasion marked by PA memorials to Palestinians killed in the intifada, including those praised by one government speaker as "the most noble among us" -- the shahidim, or suicide bombers. According to The Media Line (, festivities included a government TV special "featuring pictures of dead babies with uncovered faces" and exhortations to Palestinians "to follow in (the suicide bombers') path." Such a death cult seems largely incomprehensible to Westerners. The only way to understand it is to renounce all respect for human life, a measure that still remains beyond our understanding -- one hopes.

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JWR contributor Diana West is a columnist and editorial writer for the Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

01/13/03:Is a war on Jews a war on democracy?
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12/30/02: Questions for reflection on 2002
12/16/02: The pre-emptive war goes Hollywood
12/09/02: Protest Augusta? Why not Sudan?
11/25/02: Something to contemplate this Ramadan
11/08/02: Does Eminem now fit in?
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10/28/02: Jihad as a First Amendment right
10/21/02: When speaking out isn't allowed
10/14/02: Terrorism in Maryland and abroad
09/30/02: So long urgency, hello indulgence
09/24/02: That one, sturdy, missing word
09/17/02: Fingerprinting, finally
09/09/02: When 'healing' overshadows reality
09/04/02: Tales from the Techno Valley and Forest
08/16/02: Elvis shall rise again
08/14/02: War with Iraq won't harm war on terror
08/06/02: Clinton snaps over Somalia
08/01/02: 9-11 anniversary shouldn't come with apology
07/27/02: An unstable common ground
07/25/02: Hillary fights hard for soft money
07/12/02: Goretheus unbound
07/10/02: Rosie takes a shine to Republicans
07/08/02: Are you still shocked, Sami?
07/02/02: Can Britney win hearts of the Middle East?
06/28/02: A war on terror or Islamists?
06/25/02: Blame the murderer, and the messenger
06/21/02: Up front and personal with Atta
06/18/02: Terrorism at the United Nations
06/11/02: Who's policing the INS?
06/07/02: Spa Gitmo
06/04/02: Can rock gods save the queen?
05/31/02: Hillary's war
05/29/02: Have you forgotten we're at war?
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05/19/02: Hate U.
05/07/02: Western self-loathing numbs us to violence
05/03/02: Pioneering television
05/01/02: Western self-loathing numbs us to violence
04/29/02: It's the misconduct, stupid
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03/21/02: The tale of Nixon's tapes --- again
03/19/02: The Big Lie lives on
03/15/02: The tunnel vision of '9/11'
03/13/02: The American Auschwitz?
03/08/02: Hating the indoctrination of hate
03/05/02: Clinton and Enron: Old friends
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02/11/02: Studying student visas
02/06/02: Understanding arrogance
02/04/02: The professor's war
01/29/02: Disconnected dialogue
01/23/02: Anti-Indiscrimination
01/18/02: How much is enough?
01/15/02: Oh brothers, where art thou?
01/10/02: Air on the side of caution
01/04/02: Blacks seeing red at Harvard
01/02/02: Clinton's campaign continues
12/26/01: A tale of two exhibitions
12/24/01: Taliban Idyll
12/19/01: Right is right
12/17/01: Hillary strikes out
12/13/01: Lost files, lost presidency
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12/05/01: Immigration reform talk is not just for 'haters' anymore
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11/09/01: A beef with bin Laden's Beef Noodles
11/07/01: Facing up to the FBI's past mistakes
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10/26/01: The ties that bind (and gag)
10/24/01: This war is more than Afghanistan
10/22/01: The fatuous fatwa
10/19/01: Left out
10/16/01: Whose definition of terrorism?
10/11/01: Post-stress disorder
10/08/01: How the West has won
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09/28/01: Drawing a line in stone
09/21/01: Prejudice or prudence?
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08/17/01: Enlightenment at Yale
08/10/01: From oppressors to victims, a metamorphosis
08/03/01: Opening the dormitory door: College romance in the New Century
08/01/01: How-To Hackdom: The dubious art of writing books about writing books
07/20/01: Hemming about Hemmings
07/13/01: Justice has not been served in the Loiuma police brutality case
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06/15/01: Lieberman flaunts mantle of perpetual aggrievement
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05/18/01: 'Honest Bill' Clinton and other Ratheresian Logic
05/11/01: Dodging balls, Bugs, and 'brilliance'
05/04/01: Foot in mouth disease and little lost Tories
04/20/01:The last classic Clinton cover-up
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04/06/01: For heaven's sake, a little decency!
03/30/01: The sweet sound of slamming doors and clucking feminists
03/23/01: America's magazines and the 'ick-factor'
03/09/01: Felony neglect
03/02/01: Who's sorry now?
02/23/01: 'Ecumenical niceness' and other latter-day American gifts to the world
02/16/01: Elton and Eminem: Royal dirge-icist meets violent fantasist
02/12/01: If only ...

© 2001, Diana West