In the context of the visit, I’d argue that their presence was not so much a display of personal feminine power as it was a case study of Western feminism’s biggest weakness: the fact that privileged women co-opt the fight for equality.
Yesterday the Washington Post published an article by Kathleen Parker entitled “Melania and Ivanka Trump show the world what feminine power looks like.” The piece details the women’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia. Not to be confused with traditional feminism, feminine power involves self-actualizing by embracing things like emotions, feminine dress, and receptivity/deference to others instead of rejecting those stereotypes as oppressive. In the context of the visit, I’d argue that their presence was not so much a display of personal feminine power as it was a case study of Western feminism’s biggest weakness: the fact that privileged women co-opt the fight for equality.
During their trip, Ivanka and Melania largely followed traditional Saudi female protocols. However, Parker argues that they claimed their independence through their manner of dress, particularly their lack of head covering.
“Preternaturally beautiful, they seemed to glide as apparitions above the sea of dark suits and white robes and must have struck fear in the hearts of men whose culture demands that women be publicly invisible.”
I suppose this is meant as a compliment, but I hardly think either Melania or Ivanka’s appearance during the visit will be remembered as long as the billions of dollars of business transactions that were agreed to by Donald Trump himself.
The Trump women never intended to challenge the oppressive norms women in Saudi culture face. Rather their actions on the trip were more likely carefully staged to make the Saudi’s treatment of women more palatable to people in the United States. “See,” their outfits screamed, “the Saudi’s are respectful of our decision to keep our heads bare. They’re not so bad. We can do business with them.”
Nowhere is this more apparent than when Ivanka met with a group of wealthy female Saudi business leaders to discuss the treatment of women. The participants at the meeting all had an appointed guardian, a man who gave them permission for all of their public works. Like Ivanka, they mostly conform to the norms of their closed society, speaking out for women’s issues because they were born into privilege and have been allowed their advocacy by a man. We can only assume those same men limit the breadth of their protest.
The meeting was criticized by some of the country’s true feminist activists, those who reject guardianship as the most fundamental oppressor of women. The Washington Post reported that activist Loujain al-Hathloul argued of the Saudi women present at the meeting:
“Is their contribution in such events helpful to us Saudi women in general, not princesses or business owners or rich women? Does it actually help us? I doubt it.”
Another activist added :
“If Ivanka is interested in women empowerment and human rights, she should see activists, and not just officials.”
Ivanka’s meeting on Saudi women’s issues was not about empowering an entire gender, but rather about increasing the privilege of a small subclass. The meeting was not about striking fear in the hearts of Saudi men, but rather sugar coating the level of oppression by trumpeting “progress” that smacks of a public relations move. It’s really no different than American feminists emphasizing family leave policies that only benefit professionals while ignoring the fact that many women earn sub-living wages, have no maternity benefits, and are now in danger of losing the insurance that the ACA provides them with.
Melania and Ivanka’s visit was nothing but a very public demonstration of how the failures of Western feminism are being duplicated around the world.
Anne Penniston Grunsted writes about parenting, disability, and family life from her perspective as a lesbian mama. She has been published in The Washington Post, Brain, Child Magazine, and Mamamia. She lives in Southern California with her partner and son.