RIYADH – Yes, Michelle Obama wore her hair uncovered during an official visit to Saudi Arabia on Tuesday. And yes, some people on the internet found this inappropriate. But no, dear sweet internet, no, she is neither the first female US official nor the first western official to bare her hair in the kingdom.
Michelle Obama landed in Riyadh wearing a pair of loose-fitting trousers and a loose-fitting blouse, topped with a long-sleeved jacket that hit right at the knee. Despite her jacketâ€™s bright hues, the outfit was respectful and modest, with nary a collarbone in sight â€“ seemingly appropriate attire in which to pay respects to the deceased monarch of Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah.
Twitter hashtags were created in outrage, delivering predictable media attention to the first ladyâ€™s hair, immaculate as ever though it was. But the attention is misplaced.
Obamaâ€™s â€œstatementâ€ was swiftly praised as an unabashed and â€œbraveâ€ comment on the countryâ€™s restrictive rights for women, by social media users around the world. Republican senator Ted Cruz even praised â€œFLOTUS for standing up for women and refusing to wear Sharia-mandated head scarfâ€.
The vehement praise was matched by equally vehement â€œoutrageâ€ on Twitter, with thousands of users tweeting in both Arabic and English about the â€œdisrespectfulâ€ and â€œinappropriateâ€ move by the wife of the US president. (Though when there are 2.4 million Twitter users in Saudi Arabia representing roughly 40% of the regionâ€™s active tweeters, â€œoutrageâ€ expressed by less than two thousand seems like a drop in the bucket.)
Obamaâ€™s uncovered hair could hardly be accused of creating irreparable diplomatic damage: Saudi officials shook the first ladyâ€™s hand, while others greeted her with a nod.
But the hair that launched a thousand vitriol-filled Twitter ships likely remained uncovered in keeping with US diplomatic protocols, long since established.
Though the office of the first lady declined to comment, the White House principal deputy press secretary, Eric Schultz, said at a press briefing: â€œThe attire the first lady wore on this trip is consistent with what first ladies in the past have worn â€“ First Lady Laura Bush, what Secretary Clinton wore on her business to Saudi Arabia, Chancellor Merkel on her business to Saudi Arabia and including other members of the United States delegation at the time.â€
The Saudi Arabian kingdom enforces a relatively conservative dress code in public spaces across most parts of the country (particularly in Riyadh), which for women requires wearing a full-length black robe, known as an abaya, and a cover for their hair. This is in keeping with the restrictive laws governing womenâ€™s rights in the country, which includes the guardianship system which restricts womenâ€™s independent free movement, and the inability to drive.
Foreign female visitors to the kingdom are generally recommended to abide by the traditional dress code, though often they do not, particularly when they visit the country as part of a foreign delegation. According to the UK foreign office: â€œWomen should observe the strict Saudi dress code and wear conservative and loose-fitting clothes.â€ According to the US State Department website: â€œWomen who choose not to conform to this dress code face a risk of confrontation by the Mutawwa [Commission of the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice] and possible detention and arrest.â€
In pictures of the same visit to Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, neither Nancy Pelosi nor Condoleezza Rice can be seen wearing head scarves (and neither did any of the female members of the 27-person-strong delegation including White House senior advisor Valerie Jarrett and national security adviser Susan Rice), mirroring what previous high-ranking members of the US administration have done in the past.
On several visits to the kingdom during her time as US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton did not wear a headscarf either. Angela Merkel forwent a head covering during her visit to the kingdom in May 2010, while former Indian prime minister Manmohan Singhâ€™s wife, Gursharan Kaur, did not cover her hair and bore a forearm during a 2013 visit.
â€œIt really is not required for western women to wear a headscarf when they are in a Muslim country,â€ Anita McBride, the former chief of staff to Laura Bush, told CBS News. â€œThey could do it, certainly it is a sign of respect but itâ€™s not a requirement, and having traveled to Saudi Arabia myself, and with Mrs Bush, the only time she put a headscarf on was when it was given to her as a gift by a group of breast cancer survivors who made it for her.â€
Some keen tweeters noted that Obama wore a headscarf on an official visit to Indonesia in 2010 â€“ though she wore the head cover during a visit to a mosque in keeping with convention and not elsewhere on her trip. Anita McBride noted that Laura Bush also wore a veil when she visited the Vatican.
Ultimately, Obamaâ€™s â€œstatementâ€ was likely nothing more than convention. – The Guardian