Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi gave Italians a contradictory take on women's rights Friday, criticizing Islam's treatment of women but then suggesting it should be up to male relatives to decide if a woman can drive.
The Libyan strongman drew cheers and jeers from hundreds of prominent Italian women at a Rome auditorium.
At times he appeared to strike out for women's rights, but also backed some of Islam's strictest tenets and criticized the history of women's emancipation in the West.
Gadhafi, a self-styled feminist on his first trip to Italy, arrived at the auditorium dressed in traditional robes and surrounded by his female bodyguards. After his speech, he reached out to the veil of a woman in his entourage and used it to wipe the sweat off his brow.
Addressing more than 700 prominent businesswomen and female politicians, Gadhafi received applause when he lamented that in some Arab and Islamic countries "a woman is like a piece of furniture, you can change it when you want."
He brought as an example the fact that in some Muslim nations, including Saudi Arabia, women are not allowed to drive, but added that it's not up to governments to recognize that right.
"If anything, it's up to her husband, her brothers, or the father to give her permission," Gadhafi said, drawing loud boos from the audience.
Italian women left puzzled
At the end of the speech many women surrounded the Libyan leader asking for an autograph, but others were left puzzled. Italy's Environment Minister Stefania Prestigiacomo told the ANSA news agency she found the speech "contradictory" though she appreciated some of the statements.
Gadhafi drew more jeers when he said women gained their freedom in the West only thanks to wars during which men went off to fight, forcing women to find work.
"We can say that the European woman became emancipated, but the reason is not development, or voluntary choice, but rather a constriction, a need," he said.
In a further embarrassment later Friday, the head of the lower chamber of Parliament canceled an event with Gadhafi because the leader was running more than two hours late. Long delays have been a constant of Gadhafi's trip.
The four-day visit, which ends Saturday, has highlighted the strong political and economic ties between the two countries, capped by Italy's $5 billion compensation agreement signed last year to make amends for Rome's 1911-1941 colonial rule.
But it has also caused protests.
On Thursday Gadhafi dismayed some Italian lawmakers by calling for dialogue with terrorists and comparing the 1986 U.S. air strikes on Libya to Osama Bin Laden's terror attacks. He then made a contested appearance at Rome's main university, where protesting students clashed with police.
Women's groups refuse to attend
Many women's groups refused to attend Friday's event, echoing concern by human rights organizations against a recent deal that allows Italy to send immigrants immediately back to Libya if they are intercepted at sea.
Hundreds of female intellectuals, activists and others signed an open letter to Gadhafi titled "We don't want to meet you," denouncing mistreatment of migrants who travel through Libya or are sent back to the North African country.
Earlier Friday, Gadhafi held talks with Emma Marcegaglia, head of the powerful business lobby Confindustria on trade and possible new investments between two countries.
Marcegaglia told ANSA Gadhafi had agreed to create in Libya a "free zone" where foreign companies will benefit from tax breaks and other incentives.