British Prime Minister Theresa May declined to wear a headscarf during her visit to Saudi Arabia last week, citing her mission to inspire Saudi women. The move was originally heralded as feminist and brave by Western news sources, but blowback has followed upon further consideration of May's intentions.
Reverends Irene Monroe and Emmett Price joined Boston Public Radio to discuss May's decision to forgo the hijab to inspire allegedly-repressed Saudi women.
May said she hoped to empower "oppressed" Saudi women by appearing without the headscarf, but critics like Monroe say the implication that women can't cover their head fully voluntarily is misguided.
"This is a woman that doesn't understand the complexity of women who definitely do wear it and wear it as a sign of liberation," said Monroe. "Not knowing the history, she just sort of reinscribed the notion that any woman that we see today with that headscarf on is oppressed."
Rev. Price agreed.
"This is a failure to prepare in terms of understanding the cultures and understanding the dynamics," Reverend Price said. "This was naivete move."
He elaborated, saying media sources had to "rescript" their framing of May's choice from one of empowerment to one of relative ignorance.
Many Muslim women who choose modest dress say it's a means of expressing their religious identities. Others say it's a cultural choice in addition to a religious one. Still, others choose to wear veils to combat exactly the claims May was making — they hope to challenge Western feminist narratives that associate modesty with forced silence.
The reverends pointed out that discomfort generated by the sight of women in Muslim traditional modest dress like niqabs and burqas is derived from stigma.
"When dreadlocks came out ... people felt uncomfortable with it," Monroe said. "If we see more of it, it becomes a way of life."
Irene Monroe is a syndicated religion columnist. Emmett Price is a professor and Founding Executive Director of the Institute for the Study of the Black Christian Experience at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. To hear the interview in its entirety, click on the audio player above.