When the Obamas visited Saudi Arabia yesterday to offer condolences for the country’s late King Abdullah, Michelle Obama’s outfit (for the first time probably in history) came under fire. Why? Because she didn’t wear a headscarf, which is something that’s expected of Saudi Arabian women.
Pundits and writers over the Internet speculated about the First Lady’s choice not to wear a headscarf. The topic was hotly debated on Twitter, where some 1,500 tweets were filed under an Arabic hashtag that roughly translates to #Michelle_Obama_Unveiled. Was it a bold political statement? Was it being disrespectful to the country’s customs?
Um, actually, none of those things. Michelle Obama is awesome and courageous, of course, but not because she didn’t wear a hair covering. She didn’t wear a headscarf because foreign women visiting Saudi Arabia aren’t expected to wear one, and she’s far from the only female political leader to forego one. For example, Hillary Clinton didn’t wear a headscarf when she visited the kingdom. Neither did Laura Bush or German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Nor did Condoleeza Rice, for that matter. Here’s some pictorial evidence:
So, nope, Obama was just acting completely according to political custom. Plus, some outlets reported that she “shocked” the audience by shaking hands with the newly-anointed King of Saudi Arabia. In that country, men and women do not touch in a familiar way if they aren’t married to each other. But the King offered his hand to the First Lady after a parade of other dignitaries declined to shake her hand as they walked to greet her husband. It is also not unprecedented: In 2008, Condoleeza Rice shook hands with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, a crown prince.
No scandal here. Everybody, take a deep breath and calm down.