Did Michelle Obama really shock Saudi Arabia when she appeared there in public without a veil? Nothing could be less certain. Accompanying her husband to Riyadh to express their condolences following the death of King Abdullah, America’s first lady was welcomed by an exclusively male delegation of Saudi officials. Some of them shook her hand; others simply nodded their heads, but this was doubtless due more to tradition than to the fact that hers was uncovered. As the U.S. press agency The Associated Press pointed out, even though Saudi women are fully veiled and have only very limited rights, nothing obliges foreign women to cover up.
And yet, Michelle Obama’s decision to appear bare-headed was an opportunity for media fuss. First, some in the American media claimed that Saudi television had blurred their first lady. Untrue, replied the Saudi embassy in Washington: The TV “has been showing the entire arrival ceremony, at the airport and at the palace,” it confirmed in an email to Bloomberg View, quoted by Francetv info.
According to France Info, the picture was in fact blurred by Internet users prior to being uploaded to YouTube or social networks, specifying that Michelle Obama appears “very clearly” on other excerpts from Saudi television.
Some Internet users also took to Twitter to criticize the first lady’s attitude. On Tuesday, The Washington Post reported that around 1,500 tweets bearing the hashtag ميشيل_أوباما_سفور# —roughly, #Michelle Obama without a veil — had been posted that day, most of them putting out a negative comment. Fifteen hundred tweets, that is really not many. Between Tuesday and Thursday, the hashtag had been used fewer than 3,000 times … Yet, as French newspaper l’Obs points out, Saudi Arabia has “one of the highest user rates in the world [with] 5 million accounts for 28 million inhabitants.” [There is] nothing that can lead us to affirm that the entire country was scandalized to the point of having sleepless nights, as some French and Belgian media merrily claimed.
Moreover Michelle Obama — who did, however, cover her head in Indonesia — is not the first Western woman not to wear the veil in Saudi Arabia, The Washington Post reminds us. Madeleine Albright in 1999, Angela Merkel in 2010, and Hillary Clinton in 2012 all met with Saudi officials, bare-headed, without unduly causing upset.