Michelle Obama goes without a headscarf in Saudi Arabia. Big deal?

Ms. Obama leaves her hair unveiled in a visit this week to Saudi Arabia, gaining a lot of attention on Twitter.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama stand with new Saudi King Salman bin Abdul Aziz at King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2015.

Tuesday, President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama stepped off Air Force One at the VIP airport terminal in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to meet with new King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud. They met the king and other regional officials to pay their respects following the passing of King Abdullah. While officials planned to discuss the Syrian civil war, the political situation in Yemen, and the campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq, one thing in particular made the headlines.

The first lady’s attire.

Ms. Obama deplaned in full-length trousers and a long, loose-fitting jacket that fully covered her arms. Yet she did not wear the traditional head scarf, which is part of the strict dress code for all Saudi women.

According to the Washington Post, over 1,500 tweets were written on Tuesday by Saudis expressing their distaste over the first lady’s decision to leave her hair uncovered. The hashtags translated loosely to “#Michelle_Obama_Immodest” and “Michelle_Obama_unveiled.” Some users pointed out that in the Obamas' trip to predominantly-Muslim Indonesia in 2010, she observed the religious and cultural practice and wore a headscarf.

Why did she not do so in the ultra-conservative Saudi?

While other dignitaries have donned scarves during visits to Saudi Arabia – such as the Duchess of Cornwall in 2013 and the Queen of England in 1979 – it is not required for foreign visitors to abide by the country’s dress code. Condoleezza Rice, the former US secretary of State who joined the Obamas on the trip, also left her hair exposed.

Ms. Obama is not the only first lady to not adopt the headscarf. Hillary Clinton, who traveled to the country in 2011, and Laura Bush, in 2006, also opted out of the covering, reported The Telegraph.  

The BBC reported that while it may appear at first glance that Saudis did not approve of Ms. Obama’s decision, that may not be the case. BBC Monitoring tracked the criticism and found that many of the tweets used the hashtag to call for more freedoms in Saudi Arabia, while others poked fun at the situation and of conservative regulations. Only 37 percent of the tweets using the “Michelle Obama with no headscarf” hashtag came from Saudi; most were from US users, according to the BBC.

Emily Greenhouse of Bloomberg Politics wrote in her blog about how Ms. Obama has often used fashion as a statement, political or otherwise. And as first lady, her decisions have far-reaching repercussions.

“As a visible woman and public figure, Michelle Obama’s appearance is a frequent topic of conversation and commentary, all the more because of her race, her height, and her singular, superlative stature,” Ms. Greenhouse wrote. “The mother of two girls, the first lady has quietly but forcefully made clothing . . . a political flash point.”

Whether Ms. Obama intended to make her attire a “political flashpoint” or not, it continues to push discussions of the expectations put on her as a woman and dignitary while visiting conservative countries.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of 5 free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.