Critics will see Saudi controversy as one of a series of 'gaffes' by Cherie Blair

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Indy Politics

Cherie Blair has never made a secret of her commitment to women in public life. So her appearance at a dinner promoting Muslim women's participation in politics came as no surprise to those who know of her work.

But her remarks about the "appalling" image of Saudi Arabia will be seen by many as the latest in a series of "gaffes" and interventions on issues that many feel she has no authority - as an unelected figure - to address.

Mrs Blair has courted controversy in Middle East matters. She attracted cries of condemnation from the Jewish community when she said suicide bombers had "no hope but to blow themselves up".

Yesterday her observations about Saudi Arabia's reputation for treating women as "some sort of other" will prompt further questions about her judgement. Mrs Blair is a successful barrister who has drawn praise for intelligent interventions on issues such as domestic violence. But she has baffled many with her reliance on Carole Caplin, a former glamour model who, as her lifestyle guru, not only directs her fitness regime but has helped to choose her clothes and apply her make-up.

Mrs Blair was forced to apologise publicly when she relied on the negotiating skills of Ms Caplin's erstwhile boyfriend, the convicted conman Peter Foster, to help buy two flats for her son in Bristol.

Female ministers and women's groups have criticised the way in which Mrs Blair has been portrayed; they say she has been traduced because she is not a traditional, silent political wife and has a career and opinions. At the Labour conference this year, Patricia Hewitt, the Trade and Industry Secretary, said the portrayal of Mrs Blair was "vile".

On Monday, Mrs Blair gave a rare insight into how she believes she is portrayed publicly. "Perhaps I am interested in Muslim women because sometimes I have a bit of a stereotype about me as well," she said. "So I have some sympathy for being portrayed in a strange way in the media."

Many women who heard her remarks about Saudi Arabia were dismayed and found them "undiplomatic". But Fauzia Ahmad, a Bristol University academic, applauded the human rights lawyer's courage. "I think she was very brave, what she said about the Saudi image. Well done to her, especially in the current climate. She didn't say anything that Muslim people don't say generally."

Mrs Blair is a Catholic, and on Monday she spoke about her belief in religious tolerance. She told the mainly Muslim audience that she stood before them as a Christian, adding: "My God is your God, we just have different perceptions, different glimpses of God."

She said she wanted "to know more about Islam", and did not agree with the feminist perception "that somehow Muslim women are all poor, sad creatures who... really don't understand what it is to be a liberated woman".

She believed all humans were flawed and only God was infallible. "None has a monopoly on what is right," she said. "No one is perfect. Only God is perfect. The rest of us have to struggle to achieve even a little bit of perfection."