DEAD SEA, Jordan — To foster democracy in the Middle East, women must be given a larger role in government and business, First Lady Laura Bush said Saturday in a bold challenge to some of the men who hold political and economic power in the region.
Making a high-profile speech at the World Economic Forum here in Jordan, Bush said new freedoms granted to the women of Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait and Morocco proved that equal rights are compatible with Islam.
"Women who have not yet won these rights are watching," Bush said at the King Hussein Bin Talal Convention Center on the banks of the Dead Sea. "Freedom, especially freedom for women, is more than the absence of oppression. It's the right to speak and vote and worship freely. Human rights require the rights of women."
The speech drew polite, although unenthusiastic, response.
Bush, on a diplomatic mission to try to improve America's image in the Arab world, said education and women's rights were two pillars of a vibrant democracy.
In a 20-minute speech, she said world leaders must allow students, men and women, to study freely in modernized educational institutions.
"As freedom becomes a fact of life for rising generations in the Middle East, young people need to grow up with a full understanding of freedom's rights and responsibilities: The right to discuss any issue in the public sphere, and the responsibility to respect other people and their opinions," she said.
Women 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 Saturday at the forum says women in the region face discrimination in practically every institution of society, including the legal system, the economy, education, healthcare and the media.
On a five-day trip to the region that started Friday, Bush also plans stops in Israel, the Palestinian territories and Egypt.