Earlier this week, President Obama and Michelle Obama met with Saudi leaders following the death of King Abdullah, and much of the conversation surrounding the visit was focused on how the first lady wasn’t wearing a headscarf and how that was a bold stance against the treatment of women in the country:
… Mrs. Obama stepped off of Air Force One wearing long pants and a long, brightly colored jacket — but no headscarf.
Under the kingdom’s strict dress code for women, Saudi females are required to wear a headscarf and loose, black robes in public. Most women in Saudi Arabia cover their hair and face with a veil known as the niqab. But covering one’s head is not required for foreigners, and some Western women choose to forego the headscarf while in Saudi Arabia.
That last sentence is key because, as the New York Times points out, Michelle Obama is getting praised for something plenty of women before her have done, too.
Former Secretaries of State Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, and former first lady Laura Bush are only a few of the women who have met Saudi officials sans headscarves.
The Times‘ Robert Mackey adds that there really wasn’t a backlash to Obama, either:
Ahmed Al Omran, a Saudi journalist and blogger alert to the dangers of Internet-sourced reporting, tried to correct the flow of false information on Twitter. Given that there are millions of Saudi Twitter users, he noted, reports citing just 1,500 complaints about Mrs. Obama’s attire this week could hardly be used as evidence of a broad-based backlash.
While we’re debunking misinformation, it should be noted that Obama’s image wasn’t blurred out on Saudi television, either.
None of this is to detract from an otherwise positive message; I love that Obama and the western women before her didn’t just cave in to the custom. If it made Saudi officials uncomfortable, that’s their problem. But let’s not go overboard in thinking she did anything unique.