To cover up or not to cover up?
Melania Trump wore a veil in the Vatican on Wednesday to meet the Pope, but no head covering days earlier to meet the King of Saudi Arabia, a religiously conservative country where most women cover themselves from head to toe.
Why the difference? The answer is a complicated mix of personal preferences, diplomatic protocol and religious dictates.
First Lady spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham said Ms Trump’s decision to wear a black lace veil known as a mantilla followed Vatican protocol that women who have an audience with the Pope must wear long sleeves, formal black clothes and a veil to cover their head. In Saudi Arabia, however, the government did not require Ms Trump to wear a head covering known as a hijab or headscarf, Grisham said.
Vatican dress codes are not strictly enforced. Many women, including high-ranking dignitaries, visited the pontiff with their heads uncovered, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2015 and Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s top civilian leader, this month.
Many women wear the veil out of respect. Ms Trump is Catholic, which likely made accompanying President Donald Trump to a meeting with the leader of the more than one billion Roman Catholics around the world all the more meaningful to her.
When a Vatican official presented him with a rosary, the first lady immediately gave it to the Pope for his blessing. She spent time in front of a statue of the Virgin at the Vatican Children’s Hospital and laid flowers at her feet. She also prayed in the hospital chapel.
Every woman in the U.S. delegation wore a veil, including Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter who converted to Judaism before marriage.
In Saudi Arabia, the first lady dressed conservatively for her arrival in the capital Riyadh on Saturday. She wore a black, long-sleeved, high-necked pantsuit that mimicked the loose black dresses, or abayas, worn by Saudi women and residents. Her dress during the two-day visit followed high-level visitor protocol: modest dress, longer sleeves, higher necklines, long pants and dresses.
Ivanka Trump also dressed modestly and left her head uncovered.
Most Western VIP women who visit Saudi Arabia do not cover their heads, including British Prime Minister Theresa May and Merkel. Laura Bush and Michelle Obama also left their heads bare during their visit as First Ladies. Then-citizen Donald Trump criticized Obama for doing so in 2015.
In Riyadh, Ms. Trump did not visit any Muslim holy sites or mosques where headgear and other measures such as removing her shoes would have been required.
In Israel, the Trumps visited the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray. Donald Trump, who became the first US president to visit the wall during his tenure, donned a kippah – a skullcap – which is usual; the site keeps batteries for visitors.
The president also wore a kippah at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, where it is not mandatory. Trump probably wore one out of respect.
In accordance with Orthodox Jewish tradition, men and women pray separately at the wall. Ivanka Trump wore a black headgear on the wall, while Melania Trump wore no headgear. Many Orthodox Jewish women cover their hair as a sign of modesty.
At the Vatican, as Ms. Trump strictly followed tradition and protocol in wearing black and a mantilla, other prominent visitors took liberties with their attire.
In 2006, Cherie Blair, a practicing Catholic and wife of then British Prime Minister Tony Blair, outright violated protocol by wearing white for a meeting with Pope Benedict XVI. Only members of the royal family are entitled to the “white privilege” – the so-called white privilege that dictates white outfits and white headgear to queens and other royals when they meet the pontiff.
In 1989, during the historic audience between Mikhail Gorbachev and Pope John Paul II after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it was the wife of the Soviet leader, RaÃ¯sa Gorbachev, who made the headlines: she wore a bright red dress.