As an Iranian-American, I am often asked about America’s relationship with the Muslim world and, in particular, how I feel about Donald Trump’s presidency. Let me first say, I did not vote for Trump. But I closely watch his moves, and have been secretly wishing him success in advancing democracy and Muslim reform, even if its incremental.
As Iranians, we have been trained to be very patient when it comes to change. We have learned that change or reform comes in baby steps, but soon the “toddler” begins to crawl, walk and even run on its own. And this in, many ways, parallels the women’s movement in Muslim majority countries.
As women, we owe a lot of our newfound freedoms to the impact of visual media. Women’s access to social media and the world of fashion have become catalysts for change in Muslim regions of the world.
With that said, I adore the way first lady Melania Trump dresses. Politics aside, I find her clothing choices on-point and good for women’s rights. I realize my Anglo friends may not agree with this assessment. But let me share my perspective as one who comes from a Muslim heritage.
For example, I delighted in Melania’s clothing choices during her recent visit to Saudi Arabia. Whether it was the Stella McCartney black jumpsuit and Aladdin-style gold belt or the military-style Ralph Lauren shirt dress and zebra print pumps, her wardrobe spoke, to me, of women’s liberation. However, it was Melania’s tailored white pantsuit, which she wore among the robed sheiks at the Arab Islamic American Summit, that made me a fan girl.
To me, the choice of a white pantsuit, with a sheer black blouse, epitomized women’s empowerment. She seem to signal we are at the tipping point, ladies. Since when have we seen a first lady wear “pencil pants” in a room full of oil-rich Sheiks and princes?
Indeed, the women’s rights movement is reaching into some of the most oppressed regions of the world. Whether or not Melania intended to send a feminist message, I cheered when I saw her pantsuit on CNN, and called my 15-year-old daughter to witness her attire. “Check out Melania!” I exclaimed. “She’s slaying it in Saudi!”
One may ask: Why should we care about things like first ladies and white pantsuits when it comes to women’s rights movement in the MENA region? Is beauty really a platform for peace-building and women’s rights?
I’d say, yes.
Fashion has proven to be a critical pathway for women to express themselves and their freedoms. Notably, the way a woman chooses to clothe herself in the Muslim world very much depicts her level of freedom.
Clothing choices matter very much to me and the women I work among. I was raised by an Iranian Muslim father and an American Christian mother. I have lived in the United States, Europe and the Middle East. I grew up in a home that practiced different cultures, languages and faiths. And somehow, I kept my sanity, even desiring to become a bridge builder.
Today my work is a like a two-sided coin. On one hand, I advocate for peace-building toward Muslims in America. I speak at churches, colleges and NGO gatherings about building trust with our Muslim neighbors. On the other hand, I support the efforts of the persecuted Church in the Middle East, which suffers greatly during the rise of Islamists.
As a director of the Middle East Women’s Leadership Network, I train women to create media for their mission. We equip TV producers, filmmakers, writers, activists, NGO and faith-based leaders. Through our summits and workshops, we challenge women to develop a signature style and media strategies that communicate their vision and calling.
Last month we led a Women for Peace media summit in Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring. We provided leadership training in story-telling, branding and social marketing. We had a stellar group of participants: U.N.-level leaders, lawyers, judges, professors, police women, human rights experts, embassy representatives, peace actors, and creatives, all of whom are committed to countering cultural and religious-based violence in North Africa.
One of our workshops discussed being “camera ready.” We explored how wardrobe, posture, make-up and hair all play an important role in how people receive our Peace Building message. Clothing sends a powerful message about our values, confidence and sense of empowerment. In a professional sense, our wardrobe choice sends a message of how we want to be treated by our peers (male and female) when it comes to advancing democracy and women’s initiatives.
Some may question why Melania chose to wear a head covering when visiting the Vatican on Wednesday rather than the Saudi Kingdom. Given that she is eastern European, I surmise she feels an affinity with the Catholic church. She once also recited the Lord’s Prayer at a rally in Florida. Having grown up with a Catholic mother, I can relate to some of her choices. I may have done the same out respect for my spiritual roots. But I support her decision to not veil among the Saudis. The kingdom does not represent holiness to her. Thus, we must respect her fashion choices. Issues of faith, clothing and head coverings must remain a personal choice, never mandated by law.
Bottom line: We need to challenge Muslim leaders to embrace women’s freedom at all levels. This includes their attire and personal, social, economic, and religious freedoms, too. We must encourage Muslims to allow for other ideals, and the benefits of secular society. As new democracies are formed in North Africa and the Middle East, Islam can no longer remain the state religion that mandates how women dress and live their lives. Together, we can counter radicalism and share a message of peace and security grounded in freedom for all.
Women need role models who can support and guide them toward embracing greater liberty. I applaud Melania’s choice to wear a white pantsuit in Saudi, when it’s customary for women to wear long skirts, dresses and veils in the kingdom. Was it a silent protest or a power move? We may never know. But it reminded again in a fresh new way that women’s clothing choices send a powerful message. And I can’t wait to purchase a white pantsuit as soon as possible.
Shirin Taber is the author of Muslims Next Door: Uncovering Myths and Creating Friendships — a book for North Americans to help readers better relate to their Muslim friends and neighbors — and the director of the Middle East Women’s Leadership Network (MEWLN) an organization focused on helping women become world-class leaders by creating media for their mission. She is a graduate of the University of Washington and speaks English, Farsi and French, and lives in Southern California with her husband and three children. Follow her on Twitter here.