SOUTHERN SHUNEH, Jordan -- Women need to have more prominence in government and business in the Middle East, Laura Bush said Saturday in a bold appeal to an international audience that included some of the ministers and other men who hold political and economic power in the region.
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 at the World Economic Forum conference on the Middle East. "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."
Bush spoke on behalf of women's rights at a conference attended by 1,300 international business and political leaders.
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 U.S. history.
"In my country, women didn't secure the right to vote until more than a century after its founding," she said.
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 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.
The inequities exist even though the concept of equal rights is in every Middle Eastern constitution, except in Saudi Arabia, which earned the lowest rating in the study by Freedom House, a nonpartisan group base in Washington that works to expand political and economic freedom around the world.
Jordan's Queen Rania, a women's rights activist and World Economic Forum founding board member, said Saturday that her country has tried to put in place positive changes for its women by revising the country's laws and legal structure. But the endeavor was thwarted by traditionalists, especially on thorny issues such as honor crimes, which involve retribution against women viewed to as guilty of moral impropriety.
"Freedom, especially freedom for women, is more than the absence of oppression," Mrs. Bush said. "It's the right to speak and vote and worship freely. Human rights require the rights of women."
She said she was delighted that Kuwait last week extended the right to vote to women, a reference that drew the only outburst of applause to interrupt her speech.
Mrs. Bush cited the strides that women have made in Afghanistan since the U.S.-led coalition toppled the Taliban government, which barred girls from attending school or women from working.
"That is a terrible injustice, and it's unacceptable in any society," she said, noting that most of the people in the Middle East and northern Africa who are illiterate are women.
She told Jordanian TV that women everywhere want to contribute to their own society and help make decisions "that lead to peace, that lead to freedom, that lead to education, to make sure all children in every country are educated."
Her appearance on the second of the three-day conference sponsored did not drawn an overwhelming crowd; the auditorium was only a little more than half full.
Among the most admired women in the U.S., Mrs. Bush has popularity ratings that are well above the president's this year. She is using her popularity to extend a friendly face on behalf of the U.S. to the Middle East, where America's image has suffered because of the war in Iraq, abuse of Iraqi prisoners and the Bush administration's quest to spread democracy around the world.
In an interview with Al-Arabiya television, she defended her husband's decision to invade Iraq, while mourning those killed. "My heart breaks over that," she said, according to a transcript the White House provided Saturday. The interview was Thursday.
Anti-American demonstrators have taken to the streets in Arab nations to protest allegations that U.S. interrogators have mistreated Muslim captives. The first lady stressed the U.S. tradition of religious inclusion, saying, "In the United States, we respect the traditions of all faiths."
During a five-day trip to the region that got under way Friday, she also plans stops in Israel, the Palestinian territories and Egypt.
She plans to visit holy sites revered by Christianity, Judaism and Islam. After her speech she visited Mount Nebo and stood where Moses is said to have first gotten a glimpse of the promised land.
On the Net:
First lady's office: http://www.whitehouse.gov/firstlady
World Economic Forum: http://www.weforum.org/