Why Michelle Was Right Not To Wear A Veil On Her Saudi Trip

Photo: Carolyn Kaster/Getty Images.
Michelle Obama started a Twitter firestorm on Tuesday after showing up to Saudi king Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud’s funeral without a headscarf. Her uncovered hair — which, contrary to rumors, was shown uncensored on Saudi TV — sparked countless critiques alongside a lot of appreciation, and many perceived the fashion choice as a stand against a country notorious for restricting women’s rights.

Like her husband, the first lady wore the loose-fitting garments expected of foreign visitors to the kingdom, where women still are not allowed to drive, vote, keep custody of their kids in the event of a divorce, or generally have access to any semblance of the rights granted men. Saudi women are also required to wear headscarves. 

In addition to her exposed hair, Michelle Obama also shocked some viewers when she shook hands with the new king, Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud. But, many of the Saudi men greeting the Obamas did not shake her hand, instead just sort of nodding at her as they passed.

Many have interpreted the first lady's choice as a subtle critique: FLOTUS wore a headscarf on a recent trip to Indonesia, a more liberal Muslim country. But, it's a nuanced one: She's still following the rules — foreign visitors aren't mandated to wear headscarves — just not going above and beyond. She wore conservative clothing and covered her arms, so her gesture is respectful while still registering disagreement. That seems an appropriate message to send the country with one of the worst records on equal rights for women.

Whatever her intent, we're safe to assume there was one. As The Washington Post’s Nia-Malika Henderson points out, Michelle Obama is a fashion-conscious woman who is 100% aware of how much scrutiny there is of her sartorial choices. 

And, while she may get more attention than some (she is a super famous fashion icon in the social-media age), she's not alone. Former first lady Laura Bush skipped the veil on a 2006 Saudi trip; and in 2011, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with the recently deceased king with her face and hair uncovered. Back in 2002, Martha McSally (then an Air Force colonel, now a congresswoman) pushed to have the military stop requiring women to wear veils when stationed in Saudi Arabia.  

There’s a line between respecting another country’s culture and submitting to it entirely. Michelle Obama knows exactly where it is — and she made the right and respectful choice in Saudi Arabia.
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