This week, Michelle Obama visited Saudi Arabia to pay her respects to the late King Abdullah. Saudi Arabia remains one of the few countries in the world requiring women to wear a headscarf, and Michelle chose not to — after all, foreign women don't have to oblige with the law. But it's a choice that has garnered international attention, and it didn't go unnoticed at the time: While Michelle stood in the receiving line, many of the Saudi dignitaries neglected to shake Michelle's hand. A few did, but the majority nodded to the First Lady in acknowledgement.
Islamic law bars men from touching women they're not related to. It's possible, too, that her choice not to wear a headscarf may have prompted this reaction.
In Saudi Arabia, Michelle wore a conservative outfit composed of a loose top, long blue jacket and loose pants, albeit without a headscarf. By western standards, the first lady was dressed just fine, but Twitter users in the kingdom reacted harshly with an Arabic hashtag translating to #Michelle_Obama_Immodest. Still an English hashtag has also made its way onto Twitter, and it's elicited some more positive responses.
Considering Michelle isn't legally required to wear a headscarf as a foreign woman, I wonder whether the absent veil was a mark of protest, or simply a choice to avoid wearing additional clothing in the oppressive heat in the desert nation.
After all, in 2006, Laura Bush visited the kingdom without a headscarf, and her trip didn't attract criticism. But more interestingly, during this week's trip, Michelle wasn't the only women in attendance without a scarf. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Rep. Nancy Pelosi also opted out, yet they're not receiving the negative attention that the first lady is. Possibly because the two were clad in black, in contrast to the less-somber blue Michelle wore.
Michelle's choice not to wear a headscarf does not violate protocol, nor is it standard for foreign women to oblige — as illustrated by the women before Michelle who made the same decision. Frankly, all of the attention from this move detracts from the oppressive policies against women implemented by the Saudi regime: This is a nation that prohibits women from driving and requires women to have permission from a male guardian to travel or marry, among many other things.
So, maybe we should stop focusing on Obama's choice, and instead consider the Saudi women who don't even have the choice on what they can and can't wear in public?
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