Germany's Defence minister Ursula von der Leyen, young and elegant, decided this week to rebel against the established, iniquitous protocol. She went to a meeting in Riyadh and decided not to cover her hair or body. She wore smart suits, shook hands with the Princes, was charming and businesslike. She believes strongly that women should have the right to rejects various forms of veiling, to be themselves and show themselves in public.
Last year Michelle Obama turned up for a state visit with her husband and did not wear a headscarf. I suspect if asked, she would give the same reasons as Ms von der Leydon. Thank God for these gutsy, pioneering women.
Conservative Saudi tweeters have gone nuts. This, they rage, is a gross 'insult' to their nation and faith. They did not seem to mind that a German man who was with the defence minister was wearing a suit or that Barak Obama did not don a thobe, a starched white gown and keffiyeh – the male headdress kept on with a ring.
One Saudi man, an optician, who lives near us rang me and said he was 'sickened by the shameless Mrs Obama and German woman'. I replied I was equally sickened by the way his wife and daughters are fully veiled. Then the conversation got a bit rough and had to end.
How do Saudi women and girls survive? In November Malak el-Sheheri decided to go to a cafe in Riyadh without a headscarf or cloak. She was arrested and now some Saudis want her killed and thrown to the dogs. Liberal Muslims can do nothing to help such victims.
Saudi Arabia and some of the other super-wealthy Arab nations expect never to be criticised; their cultural norms and hard rules never to be challenged. Oil has made them hideously arrogant and invincible. The world is over-dependent on fossil fuel and so producer countries have accrued immeasurable global power and influence. Their leaders – political as well as religious – violate rights, annihilate freethinkers, launch needless wars, deny the most basic of human freedoms, yet must be absolutely respected. More grotesquely still, these people truly believe they are superior to all the other races and faiths and so do not compromise, do not accommodate other cultures.
These people truly believe they are superior to all the other races and faiths and so do not compromise, do not accommodate other cultures.
Our Foreign Office advises British women to 'observe the strict Saudi dress code and wear the full length cloak'. Well this British Muslim woman will not go to such a country, will never observe the sexist dress codes. By cringing and kowtowing to these regimes, Britons, other Europeans and Americans validate their oppressive, anti-female laws and attitudes.
Here are some fascinating facts about veils: full veils predate Islam and were worn in public spaces by upper class Christian Byzantine women in the late Middle Ages who wanted to avoid being pestered by 'low life'. Persian and Assyrian classy women also covered themselves. St Paul thought women should cover their hair. BUT the Qu'ran does not ask females to cover their hair or faces. The only injunction is to cover the bosoms and dress modestly.
The Qu'ran does not ask females to cover their hair or faces
Men are also commanded to avert their eyes and dress modestly. Women in my mosque do not hide their faces or wear scarves or cloaks. And most importantly, when Muslims go on Hajj, pilgrimage to Mecca, mean and women carry out the rituals together, and dress in the same white robes with faces uncovered.
These are all indisputable facts but Wahabis – Saudi Muslims – still insist that all Muslim females must be covered up when they leave the home because their presence creates disorder and provokes male sexuality. What an insult to both men and women.
Clothes give out messages, strong messages. When a woman is not seen, she will not be heard. This is what a feminist Egyptian man, Qasim Amin, inspired by John Stuart Mill, wrote in 1899, in The Liberation of Women. Amin also warned that societies which controlled females and imprisoned their spirits were doomed to remain economically and culturally backward. He was vilified then as a colonial stooge and still is, even though he has been proved right over and over again.
Arab chiefs - all men - have got more vainglorious and indomitable while western politicians, royals and civil servants have become more appeasing, abject and obliging
Most Muslim countries are in chaos, their people seriously uneducated, low in all the league tables of development. During the dark ages the Arab world was the intellectual hub of the world. Wahabism was an abomination which came along in the Victorian age. It has destroyed our heritage, values, most of all the lives and aspirations of countless Muslim females.
Arab chiefs – all men – have got more vainglorious and indomitable while western politicians, royals and civil servants have become more appeasing, abject and obliging. Regressive Saudi and UAE cultural and religious practices are tolerated and sometimes humbly followed. This must stop. The German defence minister has started a small revolution. Other Europeans must support her and follow her example.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is a journalist, columnist, broadcaster and author. Her most recent book is Exotic England, on how the East has enticed Englanders. She has appeared on Question Time, Newsnight, BBC News, and has been described by the Telegraph as one of the most powerful Asians in the UK.