Laura Bush promotes women's rights on Middle East tour

Laura Bush met with the wife of Israel’s president today, as part of a Middle East tour meant to promote women’s rights and help defuse growing anti-American sentiment in the region.

Outside the residence of President Moshe Katsav in Jerusalem, about two dozen demonstrators chanted for the release of convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, who is serving a life sentence in a US prison. “Pollard, the people are with you,” the group chanted.

After her meeting with Gila Katsav, Mrs Bush headed to the Western Wall, Jerusalem’s holiest shrine. Mrs Bush said she planned to follow local custom and slip a note with a personal request into a crack in the wall.

Also on her agenda is a trip to the West Bank town of Jericho for talks with eight prominent Palestinian women, including Cabinet ministers and legislators.

Back in Jerusalem, she is to visit Yad Vashem, a memorial to six million Jews killed in the Nazi genocide. Her final stop is a church in the Arab town of Abu Ghosh, near Jerusalem, on Monday, before she leaves for Egypt.

Mrs Bush arrived in Israel from Jordan where she attended the World Economic Forum conference on the Middle East yesterday. She told the gathering of more than 1,300 international business and political leaders that women need to have more prominence in government and business in the Middle East.

America’s first lady said women already have achieved extraordinary gains in the Middle East and that change must come to any nation that wants to be considered truly free.

“Women who have not yet won these rights are watching,” she said. “They are calling on the conscience of their countrymen, making it clear that if the right to vote is to have any meaning, it cannot be limited only to men.”

She had shied from the spotlight in President George Bush’s first term, but on Saturday, Mrs Bush embraced a public role.

With anti-American sentiment running high in the region, Mrs Bush called upon the American tradition of respect for all religions. She also sought to equate the struggle of Middle Eastern women for freedom with such movements in US history.

“In my country, women didn’t secure the right to vote until more than a century after its founding,” she said.

She said the Middle East and the broader world is now at ”an historic moment, a time of unprecedented opportunity”.

Women now can vote in all Middle Eastern nations where elections are held, except Saudi Arabia. The Persian Gulf nations of Bahrain, Qatar and Oman all have held their first elections in recent years and have allowed women to participate.

Yet a report released on Saturday at the forum found that women in the region face discrimination in practically every institution of society, including the legal system, the economy, education, health care and the media.

  • Click to stay connected with more stories like this
  • Sign up here to receive news by email. Once per day, no spam.

Most Read in Ireland