This morning I find myself in the very rare position of being able to say I’m proud of our First Lady. Why? Read on:
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — For first lady Michelle Obama, just a few hours in Saudi Arabia were enough to illustrate the stark limitations under which Saudi women live.
Joining President Barack Obama for a condolence visit after the death of the King Abdullah, Mrs. Obama stepped off of Air Force One wearing long pants and a long, brightly colored jacket — but no headscarf.
Under the kingdom’s strict dress code for women, Saudi females are required to wear a headscarf and loose, black robes in public. Most women in Saudi Arabia cover their hair and face with a veil known as the niqab. But covering one’s head is not required for foreigners, and some Western women choose to forego the headscarf while in Saudi Arabia.
As a delegation of dozens of Saudi officials — all men — greeted the Obamas in Riyadh, some shook hands with Mrs. Obama. Others avoided a handshake but acknowledged the first lady with a nod as they passed by.
The Washington Post reports that Mrs. Obama’s actions caused an uproar among Saudi women on social media:
Barack Obama was in Riyadh on Tuesday to pay his respects to the late Saudi King Abdullah. His visit, for which he cut short a much-hyped trip to India, underscores how important the U.S.-Saudi relationship remains to the American leadership. On social media, however, much of the attention has focused on something else: His wife’s attire.
More than 1,500 tweets using the hashtag #?????_??????_???? (roughly, #Michelle_Obama_immodesty) were sent Tuesday, many of which criticized the first lady. Some users pointed out that on a recent trip to Indonesia, Michelle had worn a headscarf. Why not in Saudi Arabia?
The response wasn’t entirely negative — Ahram Online notes that some Twitter users said Michelle shouldn’t be criticized too much, it being a short, impromptu trip and all. Saudi state television did show images of Michelle and her uncovered head, despite some claims that they had digitally obscured her (a widely circulated video with the first lady entirely blurred seems to have been an amateur production).
The headscarf thing wasn’t the only issue some Saudis took with the First Lady’s attire, as Josh Rogin with Bloomberg View notes:
The alleged blurring wasn’t the only controversy. Some Arab media outlets criticized Michelle Obama for wearing a blue dress, rather than a black one.
Politico points out other First Ladies (and former First Ladies) have been known to throw aside the headscarf as well:
In 2011, when then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Abdullah in New York, she did not cover her face or hair. Nor did then-first lady Laura Bush during a 2006 visit with Abdullah in Saudi Arabia.
American women: Rebels, with a clue. Sometimes.