Saudi Arabia’s King Salman greeted President Obama as he arrived with first lady Michelle Obama in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday.
Michelle Obama’s wardrobe is always a popular topic of conservation and speculation. This week, however, it assumed center stage in the international and national news covering the American diplomatic visit to Saudi Arabia’s new ruler, King Salman. True — the press covered the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia, the affect of the late Saudi king’s death on oil prices, and questions over American foreign policy toward strategic allies with radically different human right values. But amidst all these crucial and far-reaching international discussions the subject of Mrs. Obama’s appearance — that she did not wear the veil, that her clothes were loose, that she was frowning at points, that her choice of style differed from other occasions — was what garnered attention and Internet chatter.
As it happens, the emphasis on Mrs. Obama’s appearance is the second time this month that the international press focused on the physical presence of a powerful and important woman.
Nearly three weeks ago, after the horrific terror attacks at Paris’ Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Casher, an outpouring of support was expressed across the world, mourning the victims and decrying the violence that led to their deaths.
News outlets extensively covered the aftermath of the attacks, including the January 11 march of more than one million individuals rallying in solidarity with France, the absence of President Obama from said march, and most peculiarly, the digital erasure of Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany. Merkel was one of 40 world leaders who marched in Paris. As the march was happening an image of distinguished heads of state, including French President Françoise Hollande and Chancellor Merkel, walking hand-in-hand, quickly spread across the Internet.
Two days after this landmark occasion, a new picture appeared in popular Twitter, Instagram and Facebook feeds: The same iconic image of dignified leaders marching together sans Chancellor Merkel. This new picture was the product of the ultra-Orthodox newspaper HaMevaser, a small publication in Israel that removed Merkel from the picture because she is a woman.
This alteration — a conscious attempt to try and erase women’s presences from the public sphere — caused an uproar. News outlets, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Newsweek, and others, reported it. The story went viral. Journalistic and public censure was swift and dramatic, condemning the digital removal of one of the world’s most important and capable leaders, because of her gender. Perversely and paradoxically, the picture was shared across the world, reinforcing patriarchal stereotypes of a male global leadership.
Like many others, I find what HaMevaser did reprehensible and characteristic of explicitly patriarchal subsets of society that operate under principles which negate public spaces and power to women. However, I believe that the discourse around this image characterizes the problems that we have in our own liberal society. Nowhere was this more explicit than in the image published by an Irish satirical newspaper with the caption: “Breaking News: Feminist Newspaper Photoshops Male World Out of Paris March.” In this picture, a clear response to the one without Merkel, all the male leaders are removed from the photo. After this revision, the picture looks eerily different: Three women stand alone in an empty street.
This is where our gender-sensitive concern should be directed: even in our progressive, liberal societies, women are still systematically underrepresented in major areas of influence and power. According to a UN report, as of 2014, nine women served as heads of state and 13 served as heads of government across the world - out of 192 UN member countries. Closer to home, in the United States, fewer than 20 percent of members of Congress are female. Even in areas beyond leadership, women are still lagging behind. In nearly every field and industry, women routinely get paid less than men for the same work.
The problem is that we have lived in our reality for so long that it doesn’t bother us as much as a controversial wardrobe decision in Saudi Arabia or a distorted image from a small and irrelevant Israeli newspaper. The problem is that it is easier to point fingers somewhere else, at societies where sexism is explicit and accepted, than to look inward at our own systems and structures that perpetuate gender inequity. This is the challenge of most activist movements: once they are able to combat legal and explicit discrimination, they must still do a significant amount of work to change society. But it’s difficult for most individuals to care about injustices that are not dramatic and explicit.
So we must ask ourselves: instead of obsessing over Mrs. Obama’s choice of clothes and grieving the deletion of Angela Merkel by a small newspaper, how can we work to promote an image of leadership that makes possible the presence of women? Instead of fixating over photos and appearances, how can we ensure that we judge leaders by their skills and activities, rather than what they look like? Instead of feeling outrage over what others do, how can we first fix the wrongs in our own communities? Only by asking ourselves these difficult questions can we begin the challenging work of transforming our society into a more ethical, moral and just one for all men and women. Mijal Bitton is a Junior Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. She will be teaching at “Created Equal: Men, Women and the Ethics of Shared Leadership,” on March 3, 2015, at UJA-Federation of New York.