President Obama and the First Lady visited Saudi Arabia this week to pay their respects after the death of King Abdullah. Predictably, that ignited controversy: Abdullah presided over some tentative human rights reforms, but Saudia Arabia also has a brutal history of executing homosexuals, abusing migrant workers, and—oh, the controversy is Michelle Obama's hair? Really?
Yes, really: today's media tempest in a teapot is the fact that Michelle Obama didn't cover her hair when meeting with the new ruler, King Salman. She also dared to shake hands with the new king, both things that are being presented as bold, politically dicey choices. The first media outlet to claim that her behavior was "controversial" appears to have been Egyptian news outlet Ahram Online, who dug up a handful of outraged Twitter users using a hashtag that translated to #Michelle_Obama_Immodest. Politico quickly picked that up, and now we have the Washington Post claiming that the First Lady "sparked a backlash" with her bare head and brazen handshakery.
This has been a visit full of bullshit news, with another claim—quickly debunked by Gawker's Antiviral—that Michelle Obama's entire figure had been blurred out on Saudi TV. But the truth is that First Ladies and other Western female political figures go without head scarves in Saudia Arabia all the time. Here's an AP photo of Laura Bush doing it in 2007, while shaking hands with King Abdullah, no less:
And here's Hillary Clinton—as Secretary of State, not First Lady—during a visit in 2012, with her hair pulled back but not covered. She's talking to Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal, right, and Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah Khaled al-Hamad Al-Sabah:
And just for shits, here's Nancy Reagan at a state dinner in 1985, standing next to King Fadh. Granted, this was in DC, but if it was really custom to cover your head as a mark of respect for Saudi leaders, you better believe old Nancy would've done it:
This "controversy" is being debunked almost as soon as it got off the ground: the BBC notes that very few people used the #Michelle_Obama_Immodest hashtag to actually complain about immodesty:
BBC Monitoring, which was tracking the criticism of Michelle Obama, said most tweeters from the Arab world using "Michelle Obama with no headscarf" were making fun of the situation and of conservative Saudi regulations. Some were sharing pictures of a Michelle Obama wearing a headscarf during a trip to Malaysia in 2010, while others used the tag to call for more freedoms in the kingdom.
Far fewer voices were angry at the first lady's uncovered head, and a huge number of tweets came from US users slamming Saudi traditions. In fact only 37% of the tweets using the "Michelle Obama with no headscarf" tag came from Saudi at all.
Despite that, conservative outlets like The Blaze and Twitchy have leapt on this, as a way for their readership to freak out about Michelle Obama, Sharia law, and scary foreigners in one fell swoop. It's also a way for them to imply that Michelle Obama is "more of a man" than her husband, or something, a peculiar obsession of the far right:
The fact is, Saudia Arabia reserves its worst repression not for visiting First Ladies but for their own citizens. Women famously still can't drive or appear in public unaccompanied by a male relative, and while Human Rights Watch points out that Abdullah's legacy includes a few minor reforms for women, his reign also included the mass arrest and abuse of migrant workers, the public flogging of political dissidents, and the persecution of gay men. Also, four people were beheaded less than a week into Salman's term, for crimes ranging from incest to drug-dealing. But why talk about why the United States turns a blind eye to the human rights abuses of its allies when we can talk about what a woman was or wasn't wearing?
Images via AP