Two years ago I flew to Bahrain, an island kingdom in the Persian Gulf. I was a guest speaker at the first annual meeting of the Council of Arab Business Women.

I had brought along a roll of uncirculated U.S. one dollar coins minted with the profile of Sacagawea, the young Shoshone woman who was so valuable to the Lewis and Clark Expedition two hundred years ago. In much of the Middle East a U.S. dollar is a generous tip.

I had intended to use those Sacagawea coins as goodwill gratuities. Instead, most servers and bellmen politely declined, “Only paper, please sir.”

Some two hundred women from seventeen Arab countries were gathered in a large hotel ballroom when it was my turn to speak. None wore veils. Perhaps a third had their heads covered. The rest were in fashionable Western dress.

Though simultaneous translation was offered, only a few women reached for the earphones when I began in English. The rest seemed to understand me, or at least laughed and applauded at appropriate times. They particularly liked my comparison of family life to a nest of porcupines snuggled down on a cold night -- but that’s for another column.

Near the end, I told them the story of Sacagawea and showed them one of the dollar coins. I asked them to say together in Arabic, “She showed them the way.” I asked them to say it again more forcefully, and still more forcefully a third time.

In the middle of my closing remarks, an Egyptian woman walked to the stage, gave me her card and asked for “one of those coins.” Others followed after I finished. As you might expect, I left the stage $50 lighter with fifty new business cards.

Their questions afterwards were thoughtful, respectful and pointed. A few women were from famous Middle Eastern business families; others owned child care centers, clothing stores, real estate agencies. Some had founded their companies; others had taken over from husbands, fathers or brothers.

I had met women like these while consulting business families in Egypt. They were strong, resolute, hard-working, and plenty tough when necessary. They had to be. Many endured indignities American women cannot imagine.

A heads up: the status of women in the Middle East is gradually changing and improving, at least from this American’s viewpoint. The future for Middle Eastern women is vast cultural frontier. Pioneer business women like those I met that day in Bahrain will show them the way.

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