As soon as President Obama and Michelle Obama arrived in Saudi Arabia this week for the funeral of Saudi King Abdullah, it was inevitable that there would be a nonsense media controversy of some kind over the visit, and it didn’t take long. There is a growing tempest of coverage over Michelle Obama’s decision to not wear a veil to the funeral.
Here’s the story, as you will encounter it throughout the American media: Saudi Arabia is an ultra-conservative country where Saudi women have second-class status, which includes mandatory veiling while in public (this is true). Michelle, by not wearing a veil at this high-profile diplomatic event, was either taking a principled stand on behalf on women’s rights, or she was openly defying the dictatorial Saudi monarchs, or she was insulting a close American ally. Whatever her intention, it caused an uproar throughout Saudi Arabia, and it probably infuriated her hosts.
But those narratives are all false, on specific factual grounds as well as broader conceptual grounds. Declarations that she made a “bold political statement” don’t just exist in a bizarrely fact-free environment, they perpetuate American misconceptions about Saudi Arabia and the Arab world that are fundamentally racist, rooted in the idea that Arabs are such inherently backward cavemen that even top government leaders would be somehow shocked to see an unveiled woman.
Since no one else seems interested in presenting them (the truth doesn’t matter when it comes to covering Saudi Arabia, for some reason), here are some actual facts about this story and what they mean:
- American officials in Saudi Arabia typically do not wear headscarves, including at formal government functions. Michelle was following normal protocol.
- Former first ladies Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton did not wear headscarves on similar official visits to Saudi Arabia. Neither did former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
- Saudi Arabia is officially ultra-conservative, but it is also heavily integrated into the global economy; unveiled Western women are extremely common in elite government circles like this one. Unveiled female Western leaders are common sights on Saudi media.
- I feel very confident that no one at the funeral blinked at seeing Michelle Obama unveiled. Saudi royals are comfortable with the West and with Western customs; many spend long parts of the year in Europe and a number were educated in American boarding schools or colleges. They are accustomed to seeing unveiled women, and to working and interacting with powerful women.
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