A group of Saudi women wear the abaya while abroad in Ethiopia in 2013.

Credit: UNICEF Ethiopia / Flickr Creative Commons

Dateline Saudia Arabia: Was Bare-Headed Michelle Obama Staging A Protest?

January 28, 2015

While Twitter feeds around the Northeast this week were clogged with photos of snowdrifts and intrepid New Englanders skiing cavalierly down major thoroughfares, a social media trend of a different sort cropped up halfway across the world in Saudi Arabia: a hashtag that translated roughly as "Michelle_Obama_unveiled."

While making a brief stopover in Riyadh for the funeral of Saudi leader King Abudullah, the First Lady appeared without a covering on her head and shook the hands of the Saudi royal family—moves that are both contrary to custom in Saudi Arabia.  

Homeland security expert Juliette Kayyem said the decision was a subtle but intentional repudiation of the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia, where women are forbidden from driving a car, leaving the home without a male chaperone, and voting in elections.

"I think it was clearly a statement we can make and we ought to make," Kayyem said. 

"We don't have to play by their rules, and how they treat women in that country: a country that still does not permit women to vote, a country that has had one woman on an Olympic team, a country that pretends to be modern but is not when it comes to gender dynamics," she said.

Michelle Obama is not the first high-profile American woman to shake hands and eschew a head covering on state visits. Former First Lady Laura Bush and former Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and Condoleeza Rice all opted out of covering their heads on visits to Saudi Arabia. Clinton, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have all previously shaken hands with the Saudi king.

"Why should she play that game?" Kayyem said. "She's the First Lady of the United States. She doesn't have to cover her head."

But while Kayyem praised the First Lady's decision to go uncovered, she pointed out that the Obama Administration has remained silent on other important issues surrounding the country, including the public flogging and imprisonment of blogger Raif Badawi and allegations of involvement with Osama bin Laden before 9/11

"The idea that we're all sort of praising the deceased king is still shocking to me when you think of their complicity, their involvement with Bin Laden," Kayyem said.

For more from homeland security expert Juliette Kayyem, tune in to Boston Public Radio above.

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