When the president delivered his tactful speech at Cairo University Thursday morning, he had a little help from a friend: the head scarf. When the comprehensive address turned to the issue of women's rights in the Muslim world, Obama took the hijab head-on: "I reject the view of some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal."
Surely, this will cause some to hyperventilate, but notice his careful wording: He didn't say, "The head scarf is a totally awesome tool for equality and empowerment!" What Obama did was defend a woman's choice to wear it, and reject the idea that it is by definition a tool of oppression. He addressed hijab in its least controversial role -- as an elective cultural practice that means all sorts of things to all sorts of people -- and stayed away from situations where a woman is forced or coerced into wearing it, or when a woman dons a full niqab.
Of course he did. The man used that politically charged piece of fabric with savoir-faire. It was a way to establish his respect and tolerance before getting to his core argument about women's rights: "I do believe that a woman who is denied an education is denied equality," he continued. "And it is no coincidence that countries where women are well-educated are far more likely to be prosperous." Then came another nod of respect: Women's equality, he said, isn't "simply an issue for Islam." Followed by a bold declaration: "Our daughters can contribute just as much to society as our sons, and our common prosperity will be advanced by allowing all humanity -- men and women -- to reach their full potential."
Again, he balanced his tone: "I do not believe that women must make the same choices as men in order to be equal, and I respect those women who choose to live their lives in traditional roles," and then added, "but it should be their choice." Obama ultimately offered to "partner with any Muslim-majority country to support expanded literacy for girls, and to help young women pursue employment through micro-financing that helps people live their dreams."
This wee little section on women's rights followed the overall model of his expansive speech: He deftly wove his Western, democratic views together with sensitivity, respect and tolerance for Islamic culture. Some will inevitably call this cowardice; others, like me, call it diplomacy.