Michelle Obama Unveiled

As seen with preceding first ladies, Michelle Obama’s wardrobe has been highly analyzed for the sake of “fashion diplomacy.” Such was the case during her recent trip to Saudi Arabia, with the President, to pay their respects to the late King Abdullah. The first lady’s choice to leave her hair uncovered as she met with the royal family sparked wide debate worldwide. While she was considered by some as heroic for standing up for women’s rights, others deemed her insensitive for ignoring foreign customs.

However, she was neither of these things. The first lady’s outfit simply reflected the options she had as a visiting American dignitary. Obama was not visiting a mosque, as she did in a 2010 trip to Indonesia, and thus was not required to wear a headscarf, or hijab. In addition, while the country implements a strict dress code for Saudi women, its guidelines are less stringent for foreigners. Visitors still are required to cover their arms and legs but have the option to reveal their face and hair. Obama followed this protocol, wearing loosely fit clothing that only left her hands uncovered below her neck.  Her decision, therefore, was not bold, revolutionary or offensive; it was nothing more than convention.

Likewise, Obama’s choice is not unprecedented.  Other women in her party, including Condoleezza Rice and Nancy Pelosi, also met with diplomats without covering their hair. Although some high-profile women have worn a headscarf when visiting in the past, Saudi leaders have met with a variety of others who chose otherwise, including Laura Bush, Hillary Clinton and Angela Merkel.

The responses to the first lady’s uncovered hair have been highly exaggerated by the media, some even fabricated. First, there was the report that she caused such uproar in the country that her image was blurred out on Saudi television.  This was quickly disproved by the Saudi embassy in Washington, D.C. Observers of the live broadcast posed the the ensuing videos online.

This is the same with the alleged “outrage” she sparked on Twitter.  While there are over 2 million users in Saudi Arabia, approximately 1,500 tweets with the translated hashtag #Michelle_Obama_Unveiled were posted the day of the broadcast. As Saudi journalist and blogger Ahmed Al Omran stated on Twitter, “Saudi has millions of Twitter users. When a few hundred of them talk about something, that’s not a backlash.  It’s hardly a flicker.”

More importantly, the argument that Obama’s choice was a feminist statement insinuates that the hijab is a sign of worldwide female oppression. This is a flawed generalization.  Many women who do wear a hijab do so voluntarily as a means of religious observation and empowerment. In addition, using that logic, the first lady is telling other women how they should appropriately display themselves, and this is certainly not an act of feminism.

While Saudi Arabia is known to heavily regulate women’s rights, slight improvement has been made in the last decade. Coastal cities generally have become more lax with the dress code, whereas the capital remains conservative.  Likewise, last December, the former head of the Mecca religious police claimed on Twitter that the niqab, or traditional black face veil, was not a necessity for Muslim Saudi women.  In addition, based on estimates in 2011, 60 percent of college graduates in the kingdom were women. But despite this progress, women still possess significantly fewer rights than men. Thus, should the media obsess over something, it should not be over Obama’s clothing choices as she meets with foreign leaders. It should be on more urgent, macroscopic issues or rather, women’s rights or human rights in general.


Brittany Pham is a first year biological sciences major.  She can be reached at brittaqp@uci.edu.