Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s far right Front National (FN) and a leading contender in the country’s presidential race, faced a diplomatic hiccup during her trip to Lebanon this past month. Le Pen took the trip in an attempt to improve her foreign policy credentials and garner some positive international press during her first visit with a head of state, Lebanon’s President Michel Anon. However, controversy over her thwarted meeting with Sheikh Abdellatif Deryan, Lebanon’s Grand Mufti and the nation’s top Sunni, upstaged an otherwise routine visit. When Le Pen was offered a white shawl to cover her head prior to the meeting, she refused and left the Grand Mufti’s Beirut office, telling the press gathered outside, ‘They wanted to impose this on me, to present me with a fait accompli. Well, no one presents me with a fait accompli.’
This dramatic exit certainly detracted from the press coverage of the on-going scandal and criminal investigation over Le Pen’s illicit use of European Parliamentary funds during her tenure as a Member of the European Parliament. FN supporters are sure to welcome their leader’s defiance of Lebanese religious custom, as Le Pen’s growing success has relied on exploiting insecurity over the so-called ‘Islamization’ of France. This also bodes well with Le Pen’s recent embrace of feminism, as she continuously paints Muslim values as a threat to the freedoms that European women enjoy. She has recently promised to protect France’s women from Islamic fundamentalism, and from the ostensible threat of sexual assault by immigrants following a series of attacks by immigrants in Cologne, Germany. The FN is certainly optimistic that this diplomatic blunder will come across as a bold assertion of Le Pen’s desire to defend her feminist values against a misogynistic Islamic custom. As the issue of the hijab and visible Islam becomes increasingly polarising in France, this might be the type of coverage Le Pen needs to bolster her appeal before next month’s elections.
While this incident was particularly scene stealing, it is certainly not the first time controversy has surrounded the attire of Western women on diplomatic visits to the Middle East. Female diplomats and state officials often have to walk a careful line between cultural sensitivity and domestic criticism, and few sartorial choices have escaped close scrutiny and criticism. When former First Lady Michelle Obama did not cover her head during a condolence visit to Saudi Arabia after the passing of King Abdullah, there was both condemnation and praise on social media, although it is legal and customary for foreign women to go without a headscarf in Saudi Arabia. Most recently, female members of a Swedish delegation led by Trade Minister Ann Linde were heavily criticised for wearing headscarves during a trade visit to Iran last month. Domestic and international critics claimed that this delegation did not conform with Sweden’s ‘feminist foreign policy,’ although Linde defended her decision on the grounds that she was not willing to break Iranian law nor exclude women from the delegation altogether. Western women must navigate a landmine of political expectations and social custom when they dress for diplomacy in the Middle East and North Africa.
At a historical moment where the values of the Western world are often pitted against those of Islamic-majority nations, clothing is often used as a tool to convey respect and humility towards a different culture. Particularly at places of religious significance, covering one’s head is often seen as an appropriate choice to avoid causing offense and discomfort. Mrs. Obama did in fact don a headscarf during a trip to an Indonesian mosque in 2010, and her choice received some raise as ‘a sign of the Obamas’ efforts to show respect for the Islamic world.’ A former aid that travelled with Hillary Clinton, who has worn a headscarf on multiple occasions during state visits as First Lady and as Secretary of State, remarked that, ‘If you dress appropriately to the society you are visiting, you make sure that no one makes news with something not intended to make news.’ For female diplomats and state officials, dressing in a way that conforms to local custom is a way to avoid controversy and keep press attention focused on more pressing issues of diplomacy, trade and peace.
While there are certainly feminist arguments to be made about the politically charged choice of covering oneself in Muslim-majority countries, the choice to wear hijab has often been singled out in Western media as particularly controversial. In comparison, there has been little scrutiny over the common practice of covering during diplomatic visits to the Vatican. American First Ladies from Jacqueline Kennedy to Rosalynn Carter and Michelle Obama have all worn a veil and conservative black attire to meet with the Pope. These sartorial choices were viewed as entirely appropriate, conveying respect for a conservative religious environment. Considering the wide acceptance of women covering themselves in a heavily patriarchal Catholic institution, the controversy surrounding Western women donning headscarves when visiting the Middle East speaks to modern cultural insecurities about the visibility of Islam. As many perceive a ‘clash of civilisations’ between the treatment of women in West and East, the hijab is imbued with significance in the media and public discourse that is distinctive from other conservative religious traditions. Perhaps it has never been a more difficult time for Western officials to dress for diplomacy in the Middle East.