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30 May 2024

Michelle Obama without headscarf sparks debate in Saudi Arabia

US President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama are greeted by Saudi Arabia's King Salman (R) as they arrive at King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh, January 27, 2015. Obama is stopping in Saudi Arabia on his way back to Washington from India to pay his condolences over the death of King Abdullah and to hold bilateral meetings with King Salman. (Reuters)

By Special Correspondent

US president Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama were in Riyadh on Tuesday to pay their respects to the late Saudi King Abdullah.

However, social media missed the plot of show of support and condolence and much attention was focused on something else: first lady's attire.

For first lady Michelle Obama, just a few hours in Saudi Arabia were enough to illustrate the stark limitations under which Saudi women live.

US President Barack Obama receives members of the Saudi Royal family, government officials and guests as first lady Michelle Obama and Saudi Arabia's King Salman (R) look on at Erga Palace in Riyadh, January 27, 2015. (Reuters)

The Associated Press reports, Mrs. Obama stepped off of Air Force One fully covered, wearing long pants and a long, brightly colored jacket, but no headscarf.

That's unusual; in Saudi Arabia women are expected to cover their heads.

Under the kingdom's dress code for women, Saudi females are required to wear a headscarf and loose, black robes in public.

Most women 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.

In photographs from the official events, other foreign female guests are also shown not wearing headscarves.

Washington Post reports, more than 1,500 tweets using the hashtag #ميشيل_أوباما_سفور (roughly, #Michelle_Obama_unveiled) were sent on Tuesday, many of which criticised the first lady.

Some users pointed out that on a trip to Indonesia, Michelle had worn a headscarf. Why not in Saudi Arabia?


But to clarify, in Indonesia first lady covered her head as she toured Jakarta's Istiqlal Mosque, the largest in southeast Asia.

However, not all were harsh and negative about Michelle's dress code.

Some Saudis on social media also said that they understood that it was a short visit, and urged others not to criticise the wife of the kingdom's most important ally.

The United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have longstanding ties and remain bound by shared interests in regional stability and oil, according to AFP.


In 2012, Hillary Clinton, the then US Secretary of State and one of the world's most well-known female figures, visited Saudi Arabia with no headgear.

Clinton talked with late King Abdullah about important issues with her ankles exposed.

Keeping the headgear controversy aside, the United States and Saudi Arabia (world's top oil exporter) have been strategic allies since the 1940s.

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