This week, Michelle Obama took one giant step for women when she stepped out of Air Force One on a visit to Saudi Arabia without a headscarf. It’s a stark departure from Princess Kate, Ann Curry and other prominent Western women who voluntarily submit to Islamic “fashion” decrees for women when on official or professional visits to the Middle East. While First Lady Laura Bush also eschewed the “hijab,” Michelle’s scarfless mane may be putting the brakes on a disturbing trend among celebrities who are glamorizing hijabs and burkas to their millions of social media fans.
American feminists have been virtually silent on these issues, preferring to fight battles for privileged law school students seeking free birth control or lambasting television’s highest paid actress Kaley Cuoco for telling Redbook Magazine readers she likes to cook for her husband.
Three weeks ago, when Sigolène Vinson arrived at the Charlie Hebdo office with her kindergartener, a terrorist ordered her to let him in. As the New York Times reported, one of the Kouachi brothers told the terrified mother, “We do not kill women.” What the New York Times failed to report were the conditions on which her life and the life of her child were spared. Vinson told police the terrorist also demanded that she “convert to Islam, read the Quran and cover yourself.”
Sadly, these are the same lethal orders many Muslim women face every day when they get dressed — cover yourself or die. That’s why recent attempts by Hollywood starlets – and even British royalty – to make burkas chic are so very troubling.
While on vacation to the United Arab Emirates to ring in the New Year, Kardashian sister Kendall Jenner, her supermodel pal Gigi Hadid, pop star Selena Gomez and their entourage donned the required black garb and veils to visit the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. Their tour was capped off by posting requisite selfies on their Instagram accounts. Kendell’s 17.5 million Instagram fans were treated to highly stylized selfies making the humble black robes look rather fashionable. Gigi’s close-up photo with Jenner donning a face veil received a quarter million likes and heavy rotation from entertainment reporters gushing about the beautiful pictures and fabulous vacation.
Later, Jenner and her pals retreated to their posh hotel to put on skimpy bikinis, post more selfies, and lounge by the pool. But millions of Muslim women will never know how the sun feels on their faces in public, let alone their bodies. Indeed, the only fallout from Kendall’s post-mosque bikini selfie (1.3 million likes) was accusations of photo shopping her too-perfect waistline and abs.
Selena Gomez’s Instagram post from the mosque visit hit a different kind of PR bump. Muslim groups and fans criticized her for what some have dubbed “ankle porn” – exposing her ankles - at the religious site. Under pressure (or fear) Selena Gomez quickly deleted the photo from her account. So much for rebellious pop stars! While Muslims groups widely condemned Gomez, curiously, there were no protests or online campaigns from feminists groups slamming these celebrities for promoting a religious garb that is the outward physical symbol of female subjugation in much of the Muslim world.
Lest we think that burka chic is just a short-lived social media fad by a few young, ignorant starlets on holiday, enter 50 year-old Sophie Rhys-Jones, the British Countess of Wessex. As a patron to the London College of Fashion she is considered the most fashionable royal, next only to Princess Kate Middleton. In an interview with Harper’s Bazaar she said: “It’s very evident that Muslim women can be fashionable while also retaining their modesty… And what people forget is that underneath the burka and everything else there is somebody who is probably wearing something really quite fashionable.” How reassuring. And hypocritical. Imagine the Vatican issuing fashion edicts on women for which non-compliance could result in death? I suspect Catholicism would not be getting the media pass or pop culture nod that Islam is currently and bizarrely enjoying from the West.
Today, millions of Muslim women, even in the cosmopolitan cities of Europe and the U.S., are not permitted to drive or appear in public without a male escort. They cannot work or travel without permission from a man. In some Muslim countries they are forced to enter and exit through special doors in public places. In Iraq, ISIS beheaded a female dentist for treating male patients. Yet American feminists have been virtually silent on these issues, preferring to fight battles for privileged law school students seeking free birth control or lambasting television’s highest paid actress Kaley Cuoco for telling Redbook Magazine readers she likes to cook for her husband.
Michelle Obama’s decision not to wear a scarf garnered accusations of “immodesty” in the Arab media, but it sends a powerful message about personal liberty and solidarity with women across the Muslim world who continue to endure unfathomable indignities because of their gender. It also says something about the feminist establishment. By bowing to political correctness and ignoring the Muslim war on women, they look as shallow and phony as a Kendell Jenner selfie.