Conservatives Support Women's Rights Only When It Makes Them Look Good

by Natasha Guzmán
Win McNamee/Getty Images News/Getty Images

As has come to be expected, an old tweet published by President Trump is getting renewed attention for contradicting comments being made about situations unfolding during his administration. This time, the tweet coming back to haunt him is at odds with Melania Trump forgoing wearing a headscarf during a visit to Saudi Arabia. In 2015, he criticized the praise surrounding Michelle Obama's decision to do the same. "Many people are saying it was wonderful that Mrs. Obama refused to wear a scarf in Saudi Arabia, but they were insulted," he wrote. "We have enuf [sic] enemies." The current first lady's move has garnered praise on social media, particularly among conservatives.

The narrative applauding Melania — as well as first daughter Ivanka Trump, who also arrived in Saudi Arabia without a headscarf — presents her as a brave female figure for not submitting to the customs of a country with a concerning record on women's rights. In Saudi Arabia, women are not allowed to drive, and they live under a strict system of male guardianship which forces them to seek permission from their husbands, fathers, brothers, or sons in order to, among other things, marry, travel, and pursue higher educations.

The outrage over women's lack of rights in Saudi Arabia among American conservatives crumble under the scrutiny of their actions back home. While the laws put forward by some members of the GOP aren't exactly the same as those in Saudi Arabia, many are comparable.

As recently as February, Republican legislators in Oklahoma pushed a bill forcing women seeking abortions to get their husbands' permission before being permitted to have the procedure. Given the long list of other legislation that limit women's rights to comprehensive health care, seek justice in cases of sexual harassment and assault, and receive equal pay in the workplace, the Republican support for any instance of "girl power" comes across as thoroughly disingenuous.

Furthermore, "family values" held by a large portion of (mainly Christian) American conservatives embrace beliefs largely dependent on the "preservation" of the "traditional" nuclear family composed of a husband, wife, and children. As expected, traditional gender roles heavily influence these values, meaning women's responsibilities are often associated with the idea of the nurturing mother and doting, submissive wife. Of course, women's sexuality is also typically viewed through a restrictive, stigmatized lens, which makes the prevalence of slut-shaming rhetoric among conservative pundits and legislators thoroughly unsurprising. These ideas inevitably propagate a culture in which rape and sexual harassment are often pinned on victims for behaving "improperly," and in things like birth control are seen as immoral.

The praise being thrown in Melania and Ivanka's direction by conservatives is even more suspect when one remembers the numerous scandals Michelle Obama faced for not dressing "modestly" enough. Remember Armgate — the uproar she caused for merely wearing a sleeveless dress in her first official photo as first lady? Or the fuss over her decision to wear shorts?

Perhaps the most obvious point to counter the positive reaction to the Melania and Ivanka not wearing headscarves is the fact that they aren't the first to do so — Hillary Clinton, British Prime Minister Theresa May, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel didn't don the garment either. Foreign women, in fact, aren't required to wear headscarves at all. Once again, an attempt to prop up a Republican female figure as a symbol of women's empowerment, as well as an endeavor by the party's supporters to seem enthusiastic about women's rights, has fallen short.