Michelle Obama Goes Scarfless in Saudi Arabia

President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, joined by the new King Salman of Saudi Arabia, shake hands with members of the Saudi Royal Family at the Erqa Royal Palace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (Photo: State Department/Sipa USA/Newscom)

President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, joined by the new King Salman of Saudi Arabia, shake hands with members of the Saudi Royal Family at the Erqa Royal Palace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (Photo: State Department/Sipa USA/Newscom)

First Lady Michelle Obama caused quite a stir when she arrived in Saudi Arabia for the funeral of King Abdullah. As she exited Air Force One, Obama wasn’t wearing the traditional head scarf worn by women in the extremely conservative country.

Immediately, Twitter was abuzz. Saudi tweeters criticized her decision, using hashtags like #Michelle_Obama_NotVeiled. Many said she was not respecting Saudi culture.

Others pointed out she wasn’t the first to visit the country without a head scarf.

Condoleezza Rice, Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton have all opted out of wearing the scarf on visits, so it’s odd that this visit in particular should cause such an uproar.

Was Obama purposefully making a statement in a country known for human rights abuses towards women? It’s hard to believe the answer could be no — and many are applauding her move.

Obama recently did wear a headscarf when visiting Indonesia – but Saudi is most well-known for their discrimination against women. I would bet she honored local customs in Indonesia, but not in Saudi Arabia, because she wanted to make a point about the culture in Saudi Arabia.

Reporters traveling with the president and his wife say the first lady stood behind her husband and waited to be approached before shaking hands or greeting anyone in their company.

 

It must feel odd to be treated second class simply because you’re a female — especially as First Lady of the United States. Her facial expressions during the exchange certainly didn’t hide her disdain, at least that’s how it appears.

The response to criticism of the first lady here in the United States has been refreshingly bipartisan, with conservatives and liberals alike supporting her decision to go without a scarf. But, really if there is a controversy to focus on, it’s not this one.

As Aryn Baker wrote in Time:

When it comes to women’s rights in the kingdom, the headscarf is the least of any Saudi activist’s worries. She is more likely to be concerned about the right to drive, the right to vote, the right to keep her children after asking for divorce and the right to travel, marry and work without express permission from a male guardian.

Many criticize the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia, for those reasons and more. For example, already four people have been beheaded in the week since the new king took over.

Others have a different view. As President Obama once said, “Sometimes we have to balance our need to speak to them about human rights issues with immediate concerns that we have in terms of countering terrorism or dealing with regional stability.”

If the only thing Michelle Obama could do this week in Saudi Arabia was bare her head to make a statement for woman kind, I’m sure glad she did.

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