First Lady’s Decency Up For Debate

By Emma Buchman

Opinion Editor


Looks like it’s Michelle Obama who’s in trouble this week. The first lady accompanied President Barack Obama to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 27 to greet the new Saudi King, Salman bin Abdul Aziz, and to pay respects to the former king, who died around Jan. 23. However, there was one thing that did not accompany the Obamas on their trip: a headscarf for the first lady.

Yes, the first lady arrived in Saudi Arabia, greeted Saudi officials, and paid respects to the deceased Saudi King, all while not wearing the headscarf that residential women in Saudi Arabia are required by law to wear. She has been criticized by both Americans and Saudis, and the subject was even a trending topic on Twitter. My question is: how big of a deal is this, really?

On the one hand, it is not a part of American culture for a woman to wear a headscarf in public. Though it would be polite to conform to Saudi culture by wearing a headscarf, the first lady had no cultural obligations to wear one. What’s more, Saudi law does not requires Westerners to wear a headscarf while visiting their country. On the other hand, it is a sign of respect towards one’s culture to show that you not only recognize his/her culture, but are willing to participate in it yourself. Though she didn’t wear a headscarf, Obama did pointedly stand somewhat behind her husband while greeting the Saudi officials, showing her cultural awareness.

Perhaps the main reason that people are so upset is because she chose the funeral of the former king to make a statement about human rights. Then again, should that even matter? If she had chosen this visit to wear the headscarf, it would have meant inconsistency the next time she goes, if she ever gets the chance to go again. The fact of the matter is that her wearing or not wearing a headscarf does not take away from her or her husband’s feelings towards the late king, nor does it impede her ability to pay the proper respect.

From the left, first lady Michelle Obama, President Barack Obama, and Saudi King Salman bin Abdul Aziz in a procession line upon their arrival in Saudi Arabia.
From the left, first lady Michelle Obama, President Barack Obama, and Saudi King Salman bin Abdul Aziz in a procession line upon their arrival in Saudi Arabia.

Journalist Andrew Marszal criticized Obama’s trip to Saudi Arabia in The Daily Telegraph. He said, “Hours before arriving in Riyadh, Obama spoke at length about the importance of women’s rights during an address in India, setting up a jarring contrast with his warm embrace of Saudi Arabia, a country where there are strict limits on women’s freedom.” Marszal also stated that this visit demonstrated the president’s willingness to sacrifice our value of human rights in order to ensure that Saudi Arabia continues to assist the US in the fight against terrorism. This is a moral dilemma, truly, obviously.

We need to set things on the grand stage. Some issues are more important to deal with than others. Some are equally important, but must be put on the back burner in order to focus on problems that need to be addressed immediately; set aside, but never forgotten. Human rights issues will always exist, and both Obamas need to continue to keep their stance against human rights violations in the public eye.

However, the threat of ISIS and their reign of terror across Iraq and Syria is a problem that cannot be ignored, and we must concentrate on that before the crisis gets even further out of hand. I don’t mean to come off as callous, but the president has to choose his battles as they come to him. Sometimes he makes mistakes, but he is the president. We have to trust that he will make the right decision (or we’re all screwed).

In the best-case scenario, Obama and the new king could continue to work together, fully aware of the other’s opinions, and to cooperate, maybe to the day where we can actually talk about their abuses against women like two civilized nations. Who knows, maybe this was the Obamas’ way of taking a stance against abuses of women in Saudi Arabia, without actually having to say it out loud. It appeared to make a big enough statement, anyhow.

I think that this “faux pas” is merely another tic on a long timeline of outrages against dignitaries in foreign countries. This incident was bound to happen, and as long as headscarves continue to have religious rather than cultural attachment to them, it is going to happen again when we go to Saudi Arabia.

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