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Thursday, November 29, 2007

Does Tzipi Livni have cooties?

When my friends and I were in the girl-hating pre-teen stage, we used to run around saying that girls had 'cooties' and giving each other 'cootie shots' to immunize ourselves against them. This morning's Washington Post reports that 'off the record,' Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Feigele Livni felt 'shunned' in Annapolis this week because not one Arab delegate would shake her hand.

I would have immediately attributed her being shunned to being Israeli, but for two other reports. First, US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice felt pretty much the same way. And second, the Jerusalem Post carries a report from the Kuwaiti newspaper al-Jarida that Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak met 'secretly' with Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Miqdad on the side of the 'conference.' Could it be that in late 2007 the Arab countries will not deal with women diplomats? Or is it 'just' because Livni is an Israeli?

Let's start by looking at the Washington Post report:
Livni opened her speech with a challenge to the Arab representatives arrayed around the table, most of whose countries do not have diplomatic relations with Israel. Sixteen of the 22 members of the Arab League had representatives in the room, including Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal.

"Why doesn't anyone want to shake my hand?" she asked. "Why doesn't anyone want to be seen speaking to me?"

"She was saying 'Stop treating me as a pariah,' " said Frans Timmermans, the Dutch Minister for European Affairs, who was present. "They shun her like she is Count Dracula's younger sister."

Before arriving, Faisal had publicly said he would not shake the hand of any Israeli, dismissing such gestures as mere theatrics.

Rice, for her part, brought the meeting to close with highly personal and reflective comments that connected her childhood in the segregated South with the challenges facing Israelis and Palestinians.

Both Timmermans and a U.S. official in the room said the gathering became deadly silent as Rice spoke, every eye riveted on her. Rice spoke without notes or script, and no transcript was made, but the two officials provided similar accounts of her remarks. The U.S. official asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to discuss Rice's remarks.

Rice began by saying she did not want to draw historical parallels or be too self-reflective, but as a young girl she grew up in Birmingham, Ala., "at a time of separation and tension."

She noted that a local church was bombed by white separatists, killing four girls, including a classmate of hers.

"Like the Israelis, I know what it is like to go to sleep at night, not knowing if you will be bombed, of being afraid to be in your own neighborhood, of being afraid to go to your church," she said.

But, she added, as a black child in the South, being told she could not use certain water fountains or eat in certain restaurants, she also understood the feelings and emotions of the Palestinians.

"I know what it is like to hear to that you cannot go on a road or through a checkpoint because you are Palestinian," she said. "I understand the feeling of humiliation and powerlessness."
Was Livni shunned because she was an Israeli or because she was a woman? And did Rice also feel shunned, or was she just being empathetic? As you think about this, recall some of the images of Rice that have appeared in the Arab media and the names that she has been called in the Arab media since she became Secretary of State (for those who have forgotten, I suggest you follow the links above). It sure makes it sound like Rice has problems in the Arab world because she is a woman. On the other hand, at least some of those problems are related to her being a black woman. That's a 'problem' that Livni does not have. Based on what has been going on in the Sudan in the last several years, it ought to be clear that Muslims don't particularly care for blacks either - which is ironic given that many American Muslims are blacks who converted from Christianity to Islam.

The most instructive case in resolving the dilemma might be Benazhir Bhutto of Pakistan. Pakistan is a Muslim country and has more than its share of Islamists. While Bhutto has recently been the target of a suicide bomber and of violent crackdowns by current Prime Minister Pervez Musharraf, can we say that the Islamists are targeting her because they will not accept a woman as Prime Minister? Here's what Bhutto herself has to say about the subject:
I remember walking down the red carpet in the presidential palace, and I felt as though an invisible army of all those who had died fighting for freedom walked with me and it was a tremendous moment of vindication.

I also felt a tremendous sense that Pakistan had showed the way for other Muslim countries - that a woman could be elected as chief executive.


I found that a whole series of people opposed me simply on the grounds that I was a woman.

The clerics took to the mosque saying that Pakistan had thrown itself outside the Muslim world by voting for a woman - that a woman had usurped a man's place in the Islamic society.

I found that my opponents reduced themselves to verbal abuse rather than discuss issues- the very mere fact that I was a woman seemed to drive them into a frenzy. So that was the biggest challenge.

I don't know how to deal with that.

I can deal with political differences, but how do you deal with it when someone says I don't like you because you're a woman and you've taken a man's place?

I was brought up to believe that a woman can do anything that a man can.

But there are certain things that only women can do such as carry a child and I found myself in a very strange position because each time I was pregnant my political opponents somehow thought I would be paralysed and would plot particularly against me at those points.


I would like to be remembered for symbolising democracy in Pakistan and the Muslim world and for heralding a world of democracy in Pakistan.

But above all I want to be remembered for what I did for women.

My identity comes ultimately from being a woman and I felt that my life has to make a difference to the lives of other women so in terms of population control or in terms of exposing domestic violence or in terms of permitting women easy access to credit to start business of their own, I have always done my best to allow women to succeed.
Those words were written in September 2003. More recently, a suicide bomber attempted to murder Bhutto, along with many of her supporters. In fact, as some of you may recall, the bomb was strapped to an infant. Here's what she had to say after that experience.
Bhutto was careful not to blame the government directly for the bomb blasts - she said she had spoken to the president, General Pervez Musharraf, during the day - but she said she had pointed the finger at certain individuals in the government who were sympathetic to terrorists and were abusing their power to advance militant causes.

She said she had received warnings from a "brotherly country" of several different suicide squads plotting attacks on her, one by a Taliban group, one by Al Qaeda and one by a group in Karachi, and had even been supplied telephone numbers the plotters were using. The information had been passed to the government, she said.

"I would hope with so much information in their hands the government would have been able to apprehend them, but I understand the difficulties," she said.


She said the attack represented the larger aims of Islamist terrorism. "The attack was not on me, the attack was on what I represent, it was an attack on democracy, by those who are against the unity and integrity of Pakistan," she said.
Note that while she blames Islamic terrorist groups - al-Qaeda and the Taliban - for the attack, she does not appear to be claiming that they are targeting her because she is a woman.

Note also that Livni seems to be complaining that the Arab delegations would not shake her hand - not really about anything else. If that's her complaint, she ought to know better. In her own country, Orthodox Jewish men generally avoid shaking women's hands for reasons that have nothing to do with their political viewpoint. Some of you may even recall a New York Times columnist who got himself into a lot of trouble on that front in 2002. I don't know whether Muslim men generally refuse to shake hands with (non-Muslim) women. It's possible. But I don't really believe that's what's at work here.

Please allow me to draw the pieces together. I believe Bhutto was targeted for her political views and not because she is a woman (but hers is the case about which I know the least). I believe Rice's bad press in the Arab media is because she is black and because she represents the United States and isn't virulently anti-Israel enough. And I believe Livni's shunning is because she is Israel and not because she is a woman - Ehud Barak's case notwithstanding. If I'm wrong and the Arabs are refusing to talk to Livni because she is a woman, maybe we should elect Limor Livnat Prime Minister.


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