On their first presidential trip abroad, the Trumps have had to navigate tricky political and religious waters. But one person who seems to be writing her own code is Melania Trump.
Upon arriving in Saudi Arabia on May 20, the First Lady deplaned dressed in a sweeping, belted kaftan with long sleeves that fell in line with the country’s modest dress code, but she eschewed the traditional headscarf or hijab.
Yesterday, however, she paired a black mantilla with a sleek black dress by Dolce & Gabbana to meet Pope Francis at the Vatican. Many noticed the discrepancy — and had questions.
So basicly a headscarf in the middle east is a sign of submission but when visiting the pope it's part of our culture? pic.twitter.com/bhcnY0Rt3x
— Aafke (@aafkevultink) May 24, 2017
Ladies and Gentlemen, THIS is what hypocrisy looks like: Melania and Ivanka chose reverence for Western Christianity but not Muslim culture. pic.twitter.com/KSG7R46Ecm
— Girls Really Rule. (@girlsreallyrule) May 24, 2017
“In Saudi Arabia and other countries that force Islamic law, women are required to wear some kind of headscarf in public, whether they’re Muslim or not,” says Professor Liyakat Takim, chair in Global Islam at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont. “Technically and morally, out of respect for the traditions of a country, she should have worn one.”
Takim goes on to say that Trump’s refusal to wear a headscarf looked “insensitive and condescending,” especially since she wore a veil when she met the Pope.
“She is openly admitting that she is sensitive to the [protocols] of the Pope and the Vatican, but not an Islamic country,” he says. “If she is respectful of the traditions of a particular country or religion, she should extend that to all countries.”
Traditionally, when meeting the pope in the Vatican, visitors have to wear black or dark-coloured clothing — only Catholic queens are exempt from this rule and are granted the privilège du blanc (the privilege of wearing white), says Matthew Dinan, associate professor and coordinator of the Catholic studies program at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, N.B.
“It’s a show of respect because it’s sombre, but a lot of these codes have been subdued, starting with Pope Benedict XVI. Women are not obligated to wear a veil when they meet the pope,” he says.
In fact, if there was any pope who wouldn’t bat an eyelash at seeing a woman in the Vatican without a head covering, it would be this one. Dinan points out that Pope Francis has enacted a general relaxing of traditions, including allowing bishops to have an audience with him dressed in their clericals (collars) as opposed to their customary cassocks, and turning down the papal palace as his residence.
So, why did Trump choose to wear a black mantilla?
“There’s a deference to tradition in American political culture,” Dinan says. “Even though a veil hasn’t been a requirement for women since after Vatican II [the council of reform], every first lady from Jacqueline Kennedy onward has worn one. But when Angela Merkel visited the pope in 2013, she didn’t.”
Trump’s decision to wear a veil is likely couched in political politesse, Dinan says. She was following in the footsteps of her predecessors, like Michelle Obama, Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton, all of whom wore a veil for the pope but eschewed a headscarf in Saudi Arabia.
“It would have been a statement for [Trump] not to wear one,” he says. “It’s almost impossible to become president of the United States without winning the Catholic vote, so that was probably part of it as well. It’s more political than theological.”