28 Jan 2015

No cover-up: Michelle Obama’s political message to Saudis

Within moments of arriving in Saudi Arabia, US first lady Michelle Obama causes a Twitter furore by ignoring Saudi Arabia’s strict dress code for women.

Joining President Obama on his way back to Washington from India to pay her condolences over the death of King Abdullah, Michelle Obama stepped off Air Force One wearing a brightly coloured jacket, trousers and a blue top – with no headscarf.

Read more: Saudi Arabia and the House of Saud: things you should know

Under the kingdom’s laws, Saudi women are required to wear a thick, opaque and loose fitting cloak on top of their everyday wear in public called the abaya. Most women have to cover their hair and face with a veil, known as the niqab.

More than 1,500 tweets under an Arabic hashtag, which roughly translates as #Michelle_Obama_immodest, were subsequently sent criticising the First Lady, while other users pointed out that she had recently worn a headscarf during her trip to Indonesia.

A video, widely circulated on social media, claimed that state TV had blurred Michelle Obama from the footage.

However, according to a statement made by the information director at the Saudi Embassy in Washington, “nowhere anything is blurred.”

So how should Michelle Obama dress in Muslim countries?

There are considerable variations, however, across Muslim-majority countries in regard to the appropriate form of dress for women in public places. A survey conducted by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research found that in seven predominantly Muslim countries (Tunisia, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey) most prefer that women cover their hair but not necessarily their face.

While in Turkey and Lebanon, more than one-in-four think it is appropriate for a woman to not cover her head at all, in Saudi Arabia, 63 per cent prefer that women cover most of their face.

It begs the question over why Mrs Obama chose to wear a headscarf in Indonesia and not in Saudi Arabia. Intentional or not, under Islamic law (Sharia) the act of not covering your head could be seen as political.