The Trumps are on tour. And the only thing scarier than the political allegiances forged between the US President and some of the Middle East’s most war-hungry men has been the spilling of commentary on the First Lady’s wardrobe choices.
Because while Donald was signing a $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia – the first port of call of the tour – certain sections of the press preferred to gush over Melania’s ginormous golden belt when landing in Riyadh on Saturday. Or how her “below-the-shoulder brown hair blew freely in the breeze”, because she chose not to wear a headscarf when visiting the kingdom.
On tour was also the other most famous woman in the Trump brigade, Ivanka, made a senior White House adviser by her father when he took up the presidency. Her sartorial options too were often commented upon – particularly, again, her choice to travel uncovered through the deeply conservative Muslim country.
Earlier this week the women were depicted visiting the Western Wall in Israel, where Melania was criticised for not covering her head. Ivanka, however, who converted to Orthodox Judaism through her marriage to real estate magnate and fellow Trump advisor, Jared Kushner, was finally seen covering up as per protocol, with a small fascinator.
But no sooner had the two women been described as “beacons of light in a part of the world that remains cloaked in the darkness of religious fundamentalism”, than they were both pictured on an official visit to the Vatican, next to Pope Francis, veiled in the deepest black.
Gone were the free-flowing shiny locks of America’s most powerful women. Gone were the haphazardly constructed new icons of feminism, the bare-headed centurions in the fight against women’s oppression.
This choice was “a sign of respect” for the head of the Catholic Church, said the Mail Online. “Traditional” was the word used by many other outlets, in striking contrast to the women’s so-called “defiance” to Saudi and Palestinian cultural norms.
The underlying assumption here is that Catholicism – Christianity, in any case – is respectful of women, unlike others. There is an unspoken acceptance that Catholic women are free to do as they please. So what is a little black veil compared with such progress?
In the same way that Western prejudice sees covering up for the Pope as innocuous formal attire, it sees the Muslim hijab as the epitome of women’s oppression. Our head-covering is better than yours, these small gestures say. And many will be none the wiser.
The problem is, of course, that this is the greatest fallacy of all. The Catholicism I was brought up in can be just as repressive of women as that of the fundamentalist Muslim living in the Western onlooker’s imagination.
If anything, the Catholic policing of women’s behaviours is often more pernicious than that advocated by the observant Muslims I know. The Catholicism I grew up with looks down on sex before marriage and contraception, is dismissive if not fully belittling of LGBT women, and strictly against abortion. Marital rape wasn’t seen as a crime in my native Catholic Portugal until 1982. Same-sex cohabitation was only recognised by the Supreme Court of Warsaw, Poland, in 2007. And Irish victims of rape are still legally prohibited from having an abortion.
In Catholic South America, sexism to the point of gender-based violence and murder is rife. In the first two months of this year, 57 cases of femicide had been reported in Argentina. The rates in Ecuador and Mexico, devout Catholic countries, were equally appalling, with 19 and 10 women having been murdered in the two countries respectively in January and February of 2017.
Ivanka Trump might let her blonde hair cascade freely from her “preternaturally beautiful” head in Riyadh. She can tell Saudi women that the progress made on women’s rights in the country “is very encouraging, but there’s still a lot of work to be done”. She can let a tear drop from her nearly uncovered head while facing the Western Wall, and later shroud herself in black to spare the Pope from some mysterious offence. But neither she nor her stepmother Melania are guideposts for feminism in Trump’s America.
At best these are women lost in the sanctimonious moralism of a privileged West; at worst they are sleepwalking into xenophobia of the same nature as the man whose name they share.
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