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Melania Trump covers head while meeting the pope, but not in Saudi Arabia

Was opting out of one customary show of respect, but not the other, intended to send a message?
Melania Trump at Vatican with Pope Francis
Photo: Getty Images

Since Inauguration Day, the inscrutable first lady Melania Trump has been scrutinized for any sign of her interior monologue. What did that sad facial expression portend? What's up with that hand diss?

It follows that her fashion choices for the president's first foreign trip were much-discussed before it began and that her selections for Saudi Arabia and Israel have been subject to a swirl of commentary — from "um, let's talk about that gold belt" to whether they were appropriately respectful, even intended to send a message.

In the visit to Saudi Arabia, the first lady didn't wear the headscarf that is customary for women in the country. But when visiting the Vatican, she wore a veil. This attracted criticism on social media for lopsided messaging: Was the first lady taking a stand against female submission in Saudi Arabia but not in the Catholic Church?

Actually, the choices come down to protocol. 

Vatican guidelines indicate that women should wear long sleeves, black clothing and a black veil during private meetings with the pope. Melania and first daughter Ivanka Trump did so, although it's not required. "Things have become more relaxed over the last few years. There are no hard and fast rules," a Vatican spokesperson told the Daily Express.

Saudi Arabia has a strict dress code for women, who are required to wear a full-length abaya robe and headscarf. But foreigners don't have to comply with that mandate, the Economist says. "There was no request/requirement for her attire in Saudi,” the first lady's spokesperson, Stephanie Grisham, wrote in the Washington Post.

Like Melania Trump, former first ladies Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton have forgone headscarves when visiting the country. Last month, British Prime Minister Theresa May did the same.

But Donald Trump had criticized first lady Michelle Obama for making the same decision in a 2015 visit:

 

“I think people are reading into it and misinterpreting it,” presidential and first lady historian Jane Hampton Cook told the Washington Post. “The pope is the head of a church. The king of Saudi Arabia is the head of state. There is a difference between seeing a religious leader versus showing respect to a king who’s the head of state.”

 
 
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