First lady Michelle Obama chose not to wear a headscarf in Saudi Arabia, the heart of the conservative Islamic world, where women are treated like second-class citizens, forbidden to drive, enroll in higher education or to travel without a man.
Joining President Barack Obama in Saudi Arabia to pay respects to the late King Abdullah, the first lady arrived in loose clothing that covered her arms – a required dress code for women in the country. Her style choices are often a topic of conversation, but it was her decision Tuesday to not cover her head that sparked debate on social media. Many women in the country choose to veil their hair and faces with a niqab.
The first lady has been a strong voice in the global movement for women’s rights, and this visit was no different. Obama was not the first powerful U.S. woman to choose not to cover her head, but she was the most high-profile in recent years. The female members of the U.S. delegation, including Susan Rice, Condoleezza Rice, Anita Decker Breckenridge, and Jen Palmieri also did not cover their heads, although former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did not cover her head during a 2011 meeting with Abdullah in New York. In 2006, former first lady Laura Bush also chose to show her head during a trip to Saudi Arabia to visit the king.
Several Saudi officials passed on a handshake with the first lady, instead only giving her nods as they greeted the president formally.
As of Wednesday morning, there were 2,000 tweets with the hashtag #ميشيل_أوباما_سفور (translation: #Michelle_Obama_unveiled) – some attacking Michelle Obama, others joking about the situation and the country’s conservative mandates. It was noted on Twitter that the first lady wore a headscarf during a 2010 trip to Malaysia. According to a BBC report, only 37% of the tweets using the hashtag came from Saudi – most of the tweets were sent from the U.S., where users condemned the clothing demands for women (Saudi Arabia is one of the only places left in the world where women are required to cover their heads).
On Facebook, Texas Senator Ted Cruz said of her unscarffed head: “Kudos to First Lady Michelle Obama for standing up for women worldwide and refusing to wear a Sharia-mandated head-scarf in Saudi Arabia. Nicely done.”
Members of the press traveling with the president were told it was not necessary to wear a headscarf, though they were advised to bring a scarf in case of an unexpected encounter with Saudi religious police, who may remind a woman to cover her hair.