JIDDA, Saudi Arabia - The audience - 500 women covered in black at a Saudi university - seemed an ideal place for Karen P. Hughes, a senior Bush administration official charged with spreading the American message in the Muslim world, to make her pitch.
But the response on Tuesday was not what she and her aides expected. When Ms. Hughes expressed the hope here that Saudi women would be able to drive and "fully participate in society" much as they do in her country, many challenged her.
"The general image of the Arab woman is that she isn't happy," one audience member said. "Well, we're all pretty happy." The room, full of students, faculty members and some professionals, resounded with applause.
The administration's efforts to publicize American ideals in the Muslim world have often run into such resistance. For that reason, Ms. Hughes, who is considered one of the administration's most scripted and careful members, was hired specifically for the task.
Many in this region say they resent the American assumption that, given the chance, everyone would live like Americans.
The group of women, picked by the university, represented the privileged elite of this Red Sea coastal city, known as one of the more liberal areas in the country. And while they were certainly friendly toward Ms. Hughes, half a dozen who spoke up took issue with what she said.
Ms. Hughes, the under secretary of state for public diplomacy, is on her first trip to the Middle East. She seemed clearly taken aback as the women told her that just because they were not allowed to vote or drive that did not mean they were treated unfairly or imprisoned in their own homes.
"We're not in any way barred from talking to the other sex," said Dr. Nada Jambi, a public health professor. "It's not an absolute wall."
The session at Dar Al-Hekma College provided an unusual departure from the carefully staged events in a tour that began Sunday in Egypt.
As it was ending Ms. Hughes, a longtime communications aide to President Bush, assured the women that she was impressed with what they had said and that she would take their message home. "I would be glad to go back to the United States and talk about the Arab women I've met," she said.
Ms. Hughes is the third appointee to head a program with a troubled past. The first, Charlotte Beers, a Madison Avenue executive, produced a promotional video about Muslims in America that was rejected by some Arab nations and scoffed at by a number of State Department colleagues. Her successor, Margaret D. Tutwiler, a former State Department spokeswoman, lasted barely five months. A report issued in 2003 by a bipartisan panel chosen by the Bush administration portrayed a dire picture of American public diplomacy in the Arab and Muslim world.
Ms. Hughes, on this first foray, has churned through meetings in which she has tirelessly introduced herself as "a mom," explained that Americans are people of faith and called for more cultural and educational exchanges. Her efforts to explain policies in Iraq and the Middle East have been polite and cautious.
As a visiting dignitary, she had audiences in the summer palaces of Jidda with King Abdullah, Crown Prince Sultan and the foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal. But mostly it was a day that underscored the uneasy Saudi-American relationship, fed by unsavory images the countries have of each another.
In December, there was an armed attack on the American Consulate in Jidda, leaving five people dead, and that meant that the Americans traveling with Ms. Hughes were cautioned against traveling alone in the city.
At the meeting with the Saudi women, television crews were barred and reporters were segregated according to sex. American officials said it was highly unusual for men to be allowed in the hall at all.
A meeting with leading editors, all men, featured more familiar complaints about what several said were American biases against the Palestinians, the incarceration of Muslims at Guantánamo Bay and the supposed American stereotype of Saudis as religious fanatics and extremists after Sept. 11.
Ms. Hughes responded by reminding listeners that President Bush had supported the establishment of a Palestinian state and asserting that Guantánamo prisoners had been visited by the International Red Cross and retained the right to worship with their own Korans.
Americans, she said at one point, were beginning to understand Islam better but had been disappointed that some Muslim leaders had been "reticent" at first in criticizing the Sept. 11 attacks.
"Now, several years later, we're beginning to hear other voices," she said.
But it was the meeting with the women that was the most unpredictable, as Ms. Hughes found herself on the defensive simply by saying that she hoped women would be able to vote in future elections.
In June, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice talked of democracy and freedom in the Middle East but declined to address the question of driving. By contrast, Ms. Hughes spoke personally, saying that driving a car was "an important part of my freedom."
A woman in the audience then charged that under President Bush the United States had become "a right-wing country" and that criticism by the press was "not allowed."
"I have to say I sometimes wish that were the case, but it's not," Ms. Hughes said with a laugh.
Several women said later that Americans failed to understand that their traditional society was embraced by men and women alike.
"There is more male chauvinism in my profession in Europe and America than in my country," said Dr. Siddiqa Kamal, an obstetrician and gynecologist who runs her own hospital.
"I don't want to drive a car," she said. "I worked hard for my medical degree. Why do I need a driver's license?"
"Women have more than equal rights," added her daughter, Dr. Fouzia Pasha, also an obstetrician and gynecologist, asserting that men have obligations accompanying their rights, and that women can go to court to hold them accountable.
Ms. Hughes appeared to have left a favorable impression. "She's open to people's opinions," said Nour al-Sabbagh, a 21-year-old student in special education. "She's trying to understand."
Like some of her friends, Ms. Sabbagh said Westerners failed to appreciate the advantages of wearing the traditional black head-to-foot covering known as an abaya.
"I love my abaya," she explained. "It's convenient and it can be very fashionable."
Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company