RIYADH — Ivanka Trump brought her message of female empowerment Sunday to the world’s most repressive society for females, a place where women are not allowed to drive, must cover themselves from head to toe in public, and require permission from a “male guardian” to travel outside their homes.
“In every country, including the United States, women and girls face challenges,” Trump told a small group of accomplished Saudi women gathered to dialogue with her about how to build on their successes. “Saudi Arabia’s progress, especially in recent years, is very encouraging,” Trump said, “But there’s still a lot of work to be done.”
President Trump is also accompanied here by his wife, Melania, and she and Ivanka Trump have often been the only women present in public meetings with Saudi officials. The first lady, who sat courteously but silent and largely without expression during a number of formal sessions Saturday, was praised Sunday by the English-language Arab Times as “classy and conservative” for her demeanor and her designer outfits covering her arms and legs.
Neither Melania nor Ivanka Trump have worn headscarves during the visit, following the tradition of other presidential spouses visiting here.
Beyond the streets of this country’s locked-down capital, social media has been filled with both flattering and not so positive comments about the Trump family, including cartoons of President Trump picking Arab pockets as he shakes hands with royal leaders, and memes of him in an imam’s beard beside racy photos from his days owning the Miss Universe competition.
One widely-circulated cartoon showed the Statue of Liberty dolefully sitting with her chin on her fist — an apparent reference to the president’s travel ban on six Muslim countries, although not Saudi Arabia — while President Trump dances a jig, holding aloft a torch spewing American warplanes and other weaponry.
In her meeting with the women, Ivanka Trump described herself as a “female leader within the Trump administration,” and said her focus was “to help empower women in the United States and around the globe.”
She noted problems of affordable child care, paid family leave and a “persistent pay gap,” and said women around the world have told her of their lack of access to capital, networks and markets.
The 15 black-wrapped women gathered at Riyadh’s Tuwaiq Palace to speak with Ivanka Trump, dressed in a powder-blue pantsuit, were all highly educated, many of them in the United States. They held positions ranging from the heads of a national youth organization and the first public women-only university in the kingdom and senior roles in the Chamber of Commerce and the small business authority, to company founders.
Hosting the meeting was Princess Reema bint Bandar, deputy president of the Women’s Sports Authority, who said she had met Ivanka Trump because both had a life in retail. “And today,” the princess said, “we both find ourselves quite interestingly in governmental positions where we hope to make a difference for the future of women.”
It was unknown whether Ivanka Trump mentioned the problems particular to women here, or if the Saudis described conditions they face in this ultraconservative society. Two American female reporters present were told by White House officials to leave the gathering after initial introductions and Ivanka Trump’s opening remarks.
Throughout President Trump’s two-day visit to the kingdom, neither he nor any other official has publicly mentioned human or civil rights here. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in a Saturday news conference, did not respond to a question of whether human rights was raised in private talks.
In its most recent assessment of human rights around the world, the State Department noted reported problems in Saudi Arabia included “citizens’ lack of the ability and legal means to choose their government; restrictions on universal rights, such as freedom of expression, including on the Internet, and the freedoms of assembly, association, movement, and religion; and pervasive gender discrimination and lack of equal rights that affected most aspects of women’s lives.”
Ivanka Trump’s message did not appear to resonate with at least some Saudi women.
“All the women that Ivanka Trump met have a guardian,” said Aziza al-Yousef, a 58-year-old activist here who has campaigned to abolish the guardianship rules. A retired professor of computer science at King Saud University, she was recently rebuffed when she tried to deliver a 14,700 signature petition on eliminating the guardian system to the government.
“All these achievements depend on whether you’re lucky to be born in a family where your guardian will be understanding, will help you,” Yousef said. “If Ivanka is interested in women empowerment and human rights, she should see activists, and not just officials.”
A recent new royal decree called for easing some aspects of the guardian system, which currently requires a father, brother, husband or other close relative to accompany women outside the home and give written consent to access higher education, jobs and even health care. The decree, which gave government agencies three months to come up with new rules, does not include the right to travel independently outside the country.
“It’s not about Ivanka speaking at the meeting,” said activist Loujain al-Hathloul, “but is it actually useful for these women from Saudi Arabia to speak as well? Is their contribution in such events helpful to us Saudi women in general, not princesses or business owners or rich women? Does it actually help us? I doubt it.”
“For instance, Princess Reema has her own business; she’s hiring a lot of Saudi women,” Hathloul said. “Thank you for this.” But as a member of the global advisory board for Uber, “she hasn’t pushed for women to drive.”
Hathloul, 28, was jailed in 2014 for daring to drive in Saudi Arabia, an event she chronicled on social media. “I haven’t tried since then,” she said, noting that she has a Persian Gulf-wide license that allows her to drive in every other country on the Arabian Peninsula, and that she is regularly behind the wheel in the neighboring United Arab Emirates.
“My issue with these events,” she said of Ivanka Trump’s discussion, “Is that they show these women as powerful and making an impact, making a change. But in real life, they’ve been given these opportunities by the men. They did not fight for them.”
“We are fighting to abolish the guardianship system. Have they taken part in it?” Hathloul asked about what she called “the biggest wall in front of Saudi women.” The businesswomen in the group, she said, “they did something to reach that level, they worked for it … But what are they doing in real life to change the laws that are restricting women from actually developing themselves?”
“Can I ever be one of those women?” she said.