SOUTHERN SHUNEH, Jordan – Laura Bush (search) on Saturday encouraged Middle Eastern leaders to expand women's participation in their societies as she herself took on a new role as an international goodwill ambassador.
After shying from the spotlight in her husband's first term, Mrs. Bush became the face of women taking on larger public roles with a speech to the World Economic Forum (search) conference on the Middle East.
"Freedom, especially freedom for women, is more than the absence of oppression," she said. "It's the right to speak and vote and worship freely. Human rights require the rights of women."
She said there has been "extraordinary progress" for women in the Middle East, especially since the oppressive Taliban (search) was removed from power in Afghanistan. She said she was delighted that Kuwait extended the right to vote to women last week, drawing the singular outburst of applause to interrupt her speech.
Women can now 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 cast ballots.
Mrs. Bush is one of the most admired women in the United States, with approval ratings leaps and bounds above her husband's this year. She's using her popularity to extend a friendly face to the Middle East, two months after she made a brief surprise visit to Afghanistan.
With anti-American demonstrators taking to the streets to protest allegations that U.S. interrogators have mistreated Muslim captives, Mrs. Bush stressed her country's religious inclusion. "In the United States, we respect the traditions of all faiths," she said.
She also said she plans to visit holy sites from all three major religions born in the surrounding lands. After her speech she visited Mount Nebo, the site where Moses surveyed the Promised Land and where he later died, according to the Bible.
Mrs. Bush spoke at the Hussein Bin Talal Convention Center, a sparkling new structure overlooking the Dead Sea. It was the most high-profile event of a three-nation tour that will include visits to programs that are advancing childhood education and women's roles.
Her appearance came on the second day of a three-day international conference sponsored by the Geneva-based World Economic Forum. It brought together about 1,300 international business and political leaders as well as a few celebrities, such as actor Richard Gere. The forum is best known for its glitzy annual meeting in the Swiss ski resort of Davos.
In some ways, Mrs. Bush was speaking to the choir. She echoed the sentiments of many speakers at the conference and her appearance was not an overwhelming draw, with the auditorium only a little more than half full.
Mrs. Bush said the Middle East is making strides in improving democracy. She cited recent elections in Iraq and the Palestinian territories, democratic demonstrations in Lebanon and elections in nearby Afghanistan. "Now we are seeing a springtime of hope across the Middle East," she said.
She said she understands that fully inclusive democracy can be slow to develop. "In my country, women didn't secure the right to vote until more than a century after its founding," she said, batting away a pesky fly that repeatedly landed on her face throughout her speech.
Mrs. Bush said that, besides including women, societies also must expand education for freedom to thrive. " President Bush and I want a future of peace and opportunity for our own daughters and for all the world's children," she said.
In a more private setting, Mrs. Bush also used the conference to push for improvements for children back home. She touted her effort to support at-risk youth in a private meeting with members of Congress also attending the forum, including Republican Sens. John Sununu of New Hampshire, Orrin Hatch of Utah and Gordon Smith of Oregon, and Reps. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., and Jane Harman, D-Calif.