January 29, 2015
Amid the concerns over global security and the fate of hostages in the hands of ISIS, the new scandal is over what Michelle Obama wore, while visiting Saudi Arabia with the President to pay respect on the death of Saudi King Abdullah. Apparently, the First Lady did not wear headscarf, while meeting with the new Saudi King and that infuriated her critics to lash out on social media.
Initially, there was a claim that Saudi TV blurred the First Lady’s image, while she and the President met with king Salma and other Saudi dignitaries. The claim was quickly disproved as images of the First Lady and the President appeared over major news media including stations in the Middle East, contradicting the earlier claim.
Those insensitive to her mode of dressing, did not stop there. They wasted no time to attack her for what they called her lack of etiquette for daring to shake hands with Saudi King Salma, a violation of Islāmic law that bars women from coming in contact with men they’re not related to.
There was also the notion that she should have worn a black dress to such an occasion, that is, look like a black widow, while on a condolence call with the President. The accusations went on and on, while those with disgust over how she presented herself on Saudi soil, were able to turn social media attack on Mrs. Obama when the focus could be on more pressing global issues.
Perhaps, her critics may have forgotten that, while it is essential to respect the culture and tradition of other people, you can only do so as long as it does not infringe on your right to free expression and personal freedom. Mrs. Obama is a Christian not a Muslim and being forced to wear a headscarf before a Saudi King, violates her right to free exercise irrespective of jurisdiction-Saudi or American soil.
In fact, Saudi law does not stipulate that foreign visitors must wear a hijab and as a result, she did not commit any breach. Countless women dignitaries have visited the Kingdom in the past to meet with Saudi royals and so far, none is accused of violating Saudi law. Angela Merkel, Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush among others, visited the Kingdom in Western attire, so why the buzz over Mrs. Obama?
Saudi Arabia has its human rights issues especially, when it comes to respect for rights of women. The fact that Mrs. Obama chose to express herself freely, while on Saudi ground, is a symbolic move, that all should embrace than being subject to criticism in disregard for protecting the rights of women, wherever they live in the world.
For decades Saudi women have had their rights limited by the Kingdom. There is a rule that bans women from driving, while men are free to do so. A Saudi woman cannot go out alone unaccompanied by a male relative and to travel, she must seek approval from a male guardian, among other key decisions in life.
Women in Saudi Arabia must wear the hijab or abaya that covers the entire body, like it or not and failure to do so is a violation punishable. While it is true that some women that are deeply religious prefer the dress code even without state requirement, there are those that if given the chance would dress like their Western counterparts. The fact that such women are denied the choice is an infringement on their freedom of expression and the right to choose.
In Saudi Arabia, Islam is the state religion and expressing preference for another religion is a crime. American notion of the First Amendment and free exercise of religion has no place and it’s unrecognized in the kingdom in fact, having a Bible something many cherish, is forbidden.
While the U.S. wants to keep up close relations especially on trade and global security with the Saudi authority, America’s interest in free expression and individual freedom, cannot be sacrificed to please the kingdom or any other nation.
The U.S. must either show it supports women’s rights and personal freedom or not. It is clear the Saudis got that message through Michelle Obama. Critics should lay off the First Lady and put an end to their costume bashing. They should limit their critiques to where it belongs that is, Hollywood a place known for the Red Carpet slogan, “who are you wearing.”