The Michelle Obama Headscarf Controversy Is Absurd

AP944638841555AP/SPAIn this Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2015 photo provided by the Saudi Press Agency, President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama stand in a receiving line, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

First Lady Michelle Obama sparked a worldwide controversy this week when she did not don an Islamic headscarf in Saudi Arabia.

Obama was part of a delegation that visited Saudi Arabia Tuesday to pay respects after the death of King Abdullah. According to the Associated Press, headscarves are required for women by Saudi law but there is an exemption for foreigners.

The fashion choice is being widely interpreted as a huge statement against sexist laws in Saudi Arabia.

“DEFIANT MICHELLE REFUSES TO WRAP,” blared a headline about the story on The Drudge Report’s banner.

“Michelle Obama sends message without headscarf in Saudi Arabia,” MSNBC declared.

However, this firestorm appears to be overblown.

Some Saudis were apparently shocked by her decision. More than 1,000 tweets were reportedly sent using an Arabic hashtag that roughly translates to “#Michelle_Obama_Immodest” or “#Michelle_Obama_NotVeiled.” But, according to BBC News, a large percentage of those tweets were actually making fun of, or criticising, the Saudi tradition.

More importantly, Obama is hardly the first prominent female US representative who did not cover her hair while visiting the country. As CNN’s Chris Moody pointed out on Twitter, former First Lady Laura Bush and two former secretaries of state — Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice — also went to Saudi Arabia without wearing a headscarf or veil. Additionally, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-California) has done the same.

In coverage of the flap, the Washington Post and other outlets noted the first lady wore a headscarf while visiting another Muslim country, Indonesia. However, based on Associated Press photos, that clothing decision appears to have been in the context of visiting a mosque. Other pictures of Obama in Indonesia show her head was uncovered during the other parts of the trip.

Here are some photos of other female US dignitaries going scarf-free in Saudi Arabia:

Then-First Lady Laura Bush visiting Saudi Arabia in 2007:

Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton walks with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisa at the Riyadh airport in 2010:

Then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice with the same foreign minister in 2007:

Then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi is welcomed by Sheik Saleh bin Humaid, the head of Saudi consultative council and Imam of Mecca’s great mosque, in 2007:

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