Not Just Melania: A History of Going Hijabless in Saudi

Published May 21st, 2017 - 11:43 GMT
No hijab to see here: First Lady Melania Trump stands next to Saudi Education Minister Ahmad al-Essa during a visit to the American International School in the Saudi capital Riyadh on May 21, 2017. (Giuseppe Cacace/AFP)
No hijab to see here: First Lady Melania Trump stands next to Saudi Education Minister Ahmad al-Essa during a visit to the American International School in the Saudi capital Riyadh on May 21, 2017. (Giuseppe Cacace/AFP)

by Rosie Alfatlawi

As US Islamophobe - sorry Commander - in-Chief Donald Trump arrived in Saudi Arabia on Saturday much was made of his wife’s appearance sans hijab.

Hair covering is compulsory for women in the ultra-conservative kingdom which imposes a strict interpretation of Islamic law.

In fact, Trump himself had previously criticized then-First Lady Michelle Obama for going bare-headed during a visit to Riyadh with her husband in 2015, causing many to accuse the current President of hypocrisy.

While I am not one to miss out on a Trump-bashing opportunity, Melania's slight of local convention is hardly newsworthy. In fact, visiting female dignitaries have long been seen as above Saudi law.

Before Melania Trump there was Michelle Obama and Hilary Clinton and before them there was Laura Bush and Condoleeza Rice. None of them wore the black abaya and hijab combination ubiquitous in Saudi Arabia. Rather they donned business suits and showed off their "take me seriously" hair-dos.

On her most recent visit to the Gulf, as on prior visits, German Chancellor Merkel displayed her characteristic bob for all to see. This, despite rumors - which were soon disproved - that her hair was censored on state television.

British PM, Theresa May, also chose to risk the wrath of the ‘Commission of the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice’ (religious police to you and me) on a recent visit.

In fact, the real scandal here is not that Melania and her stepdaughter have disregarded Trump’s previous zeal for respecting Saudi custom. Rather, it is the fact that foreign female dignitaries show so little concern for the lives of ordinary Saudi women.

It is all well and good asserting that " the [right] to choose one’s attire is a right shared by men and women equally," as the German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen did during her December 2016 visit. But do visiting women ever raise a question about their fellow women being arrested for daring to go out hijabless in the capital?

May or Merkel might enjoy the freedom to travel without restriction to talk with their Saudi allies but have you ever heard them call out Saudi Arabia for being the only country in the world to ban women from driving?

And when Ivanka Trump says she is a feminist, does she then engage with campaigns such as the “Saudi women demand the end of male guardianship” Twitter movement which galvanized the authorities into action earlier this year?

 

The answer is no, no and no. 

This is peak white feminism, concerned only with the issues that affect rich, western, white women like Ivanka, Melania, Merkel and May.

And meanwhile no one bats an eyelid while Saudi Arabia - a nation placed 141 out of 144 in the 2016 Gender Gap report - is elected to a UN body for promoting women's rights.

So, when you see pictures of bare-headed Melania Trump surrounded by Saudi officials ask not “why isn’t she wearing hijab” but “why don’t Saudi women have the choice not to wear the hijab?”

RA 

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