On Monday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrived in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, for her business talks with King Salman sans headscarf. Merkel follows in the footsteps of British Prime Minister Theresa May, former first lady Michelle Obama, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and former National Front president Marine Le Pen in their meetings with religious leaders in the Middle East.
A female Western leader choosing to ditch the headscarf is hardly new, yet when it does happen, media outlets ranging from Refinery29 to the Telegraph never miss the opportunity to congratulate them for taking a courageous and bold "stand against the Saudi regime" and its oppression of women. But it's hardly an act of courage.
Western women, particularly those with diplomatic klout, are not required to wear the hijab in Saudi Arabia. It's a privilege women in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan and few other countries are not granted. But what makes the media coverage of Merkel's visit disappointing is that it doesn't recognize the Saudi feminist activists who have been jailed for removing their headscarf in public.
They fail to mention Malak al-Shehri. In December, Shehri — a Saudi feminist activist — was arrested and jailed for posting a picture of herself without an abaya on Twitter. The following tweet includes the photo that Shehri was arrested for posting.
The coverage around Merkel's visit also fails to highlight the brave work of Souad Al-Shammary, Saudi Arabia's first female lawyer, who was imprisoned for challenging the government's religious establishment and their unfair treatment of women. Or Manal al-Sharif, who started a women's driving campaign (Saudi Arabia prohibits women from driving). Or Loujain al-Hathloul who was jailed for 73 days for attempting to cross the United Arab Emirates and Saudi border.
Despite being the first female chancellor in Germany, Merkel is complicit in limiting women's freedom of expression in the country. In April, the German parliament passed a draft law that would prohibit wearing the niqab and burqa in public. This means that women working in civil service, the military or the judicial system are banned from wearing the veil. Merkel was on the front lines of supporting the burqa ban. During an address delivered to the Christian Democrats party conference, Merkel called for the niqab and burqa to be banned.
"The full-face veil is not acceptable in our country," Merkel told the crowd. "It should be banned, wherever it is legally possible."
It's no secret that Saudi Arabia is one of the most oppressive countries for women, but Saudi women don't need saving. They've fought against their own oppression for years. They've already mobilized and successfully elected some of their first female politicians. What they need is visibility, and for their voices to be amplified and heard.