Thursday, 29 January 2015

Is Michelle Obama a western heroine?

A lot of discussion and debate as a result of Michelle Obama's refusing to wear a head scarf in Saudi Arabia has made the judgement that it was in fact deeply disrespectful to not adhere to the country's customs and traditions. Frankly, I find it refreshing that Michelle was able to defy what is a profoundly disrespectful assumption that a woman does not mind the speculation nor lack of choice from all societies she receives in wearing said head scarf.

In fact, Michelle Obama is not the first non-Arab, female ambassador to not wear a scarf as it is not expected of them as the media has so crudely and falsely stated. Whilst the questionable treatment of women in Saudi Arabia becomes a little more poignant when a foreign visitor is allowed to walk around with the leading men, without a head scarf and with what seems more equal regard it is not such a display of courageous defiance of the western woman in question the media has made it out to be. Perhaps a more Islamophobic atmosphere, as stated in this fantastic article on Vox, has perpetuated such a response to a normal procedure

However, if Michelle was to have worn a head scarf to the funeral of the late King Abdullah, whose traditions and customs would she actually be adhering to? The sexist rules put in place by an archaic patriarchal society due to a narrow and conservative interpretation of the Qur'an is the only reason I can possibly think of. I'm assuming the amount of women actually wanting to adorn a head scarf, whether for cultural or religious reasons, is considerably lower amount than the authorities and conservatives would like to think.  It is not my western education and indoctrination that has lead me to believe so but the simple lack of voice women in Saudi have as to the debate of 'no head scarf, yes head scarf' that goes on around them without ever fully including them. It's rare to hear and possibly very hard to find the honest opinion of a woman whose head is concerned in the matter because even we as the self-proclaimed liberal advocates of the world are too afraid to ask. The non-Muslim western world makes the presumption that no woman could possibly want to interpret her religion in that way and the middle east seems to barely give a thought as to the preference of the woman at all.

For my interpretation of feminism I most highly regard the concept that choice is the most important aspect of emancipation and in this case I fear that choice is not considered at all, on either side of the argument. Least of all the complete lack of consideration for the women who are actually involved, whose heads, hair and scarf we so ignorantly dispute about without once stopping to ask all these Saudi women if they share one or the other's view.  I think most importantly that both sides of the debate forget that this purely concerns the women's interpretation of their religion, or absence of religion, and their culture and their choice in how to go about this. Not one of us who is not a woman living in Saudi, or in any other country with the same rules in place, has the right to decide whether wearing a head scarf in public is appropriate or respectful or not. Judgement is inevitable but, please, without the understanding of how these individual women actually feel about the matter one has no say in how they present themselves to the world around them.