There’s a lot of fuss over what Michelle Obama didn’t wear on a visit to Saudi Arabia on Tuesday to offer condolences for the country’s late King Abdullah along with her husband.
Headlining a story on the First Lady’s choice to bare her hair, the Washington Post wrote, “Make no mistake: Michelle Obama just made a bold political statement in Saudi Arabia.” Bloomberg claimed that her choice of attire “quietly but forcefully represented women in a land that refuses to grant them to many rights.”
It’s undoubtedly true that Saudi Arabia greatly impinges on basic rights for women. Saudi women are expected to wear long sleeved, full-length abayas and cover their hair with a headscarf. The country’s male guardianship laws keep them from moving about freely without a male relative, and women are further barred from driving.
Foreign women, however, are not legally required to wear the abaya or headscarf. Still, the U.S. State Department advises American women against going with them. “Women who choose not to conform to this dress code face a risk of confrontation by Mutawwa [Saudi Arabia’s religious police] and possible detention/arrest,” it cautions.
Michelle Obama didn’t heed that warning, but she’s in good company.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) praised Michelle Obama on Twitter for “standing up for women” by not wearing what he called, a “Sharia-mandated head-scarf in Saudi Arabia.” But, as The Hill pointed out, the AP article he linked to in his tweet clearly stated that the headscarf is not a requirement for foreign women visiting the country.
There were also reports that the “first lady shocked some in the ultra-conservative country” by shaking hands with the newly-anointed King of Saudi Arabia.
It’s really not that shocking. Several female heads of state and U.S. secretaries of state have grasped kingly Saudi fingers.
To boot, here’s Condoleeza Rice shaking hands with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, a prince, back in 2008.