Here’s the problem with tweeting things that don’t quite make sense when you’re a high profile person like the first lady of the United States: if you say something absurd, people will call you on it.
Such an opportunity presented itself on Sunday when Melania Trump posted the following message on social media during her visit to Saudi Arabia with President Trump: “Enjoyed talking to the incredible women working hard @GE_Saudi service center. Great strides being made towards the empowerment of women.”
The Twitter post features Melania surrounded by a group of GE workers.
In yet another Twitter post along the same lines, Melania writes, “Had the honor of visiting 1st all-women process service center in #Riyadh, #SaudiArabia. Thanks to @GE_Saudi for the invite!”
If you haven’t been paying much attention to the culture and politics of Saudi Arabia, Melania’s insights read like exactly the kind of progressive, female-empowerment messages you’d expect from the first lady. Which wouldn’t be a problem if Melania’s version of her visit were rooted in reality, but her take doesn’t exactly jibe with the real lives of Saudi women.
For example, although Saudi Arabia is packed with incredibly talented women in a wide range of fields, women aren’t even allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. If caught driving, women are subject to arrest and fines. So women can work, sure, but they can’t actually drive to the office without getting handcuffed.
This kind of treatment isn’t limited to the road. Last year women in Paris boycotted Starbucks after a Saudi Arabian outpost refused to serve a woman because…she was a woman. The barista instead told her to go get a man to pick up the coffee instead.
These are just a couple of examples of the effects of the country’s discriminatory “male guardianship system,” which suppresses Saudi women in a number of ways. They are prohibited from from obtaining a passport or seeking higher education with the approval of a man. This strict control extends to the way women are allowed to present their bodies in public as well as the right to control who they marry or divorce.
In this context, Melania’s tweets sound less like progressive support of women’s rights and more like messages from a warped dimension.
A number of Twitter users agreed:
normalisation of women marginalised, ignored, segregated, oppressed. Melania could have used this moment to show strength, empowerment…
— Iman Hallam (@ImanHallam) May 20, 2017
Bottom line: If you’re in a position as influential as that of First Lady, pretending the state of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia is a-okay probably does more harm than good.