What Michelle Obama Didn't Wear in Saudi Arabia

How the first lady quietly but forcefully represented women in a land that refuses to grant them so many rights.

Saudi new King Salman (R), US President Barack Obama (3rd from L) and First Lady Michelle Obama (3rd from R) hold a receiving line for delegation members at the Erga Palace in the capital Riyadh on January 27, 2015.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Susan Rice, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who is today President Barack Obama's national security adviser, tweeted Tuesday: “With King Salman and Crown Prince Muqrin as partners, clear that US-#Saudi relations will continue to prosper as they did under late King.”

To gauge from the replies, it was a harsh <140-character toke for many to swallow. Liberal journalists have strongly criticized the American government for its gushing response to the death on Friday of King Abdullah; Glenn Greenwald at the Intercept deemed it “nauseating.” At the conservative National Review, Council on Foreign Relations fellow Elliott Abrams pointed to the women members of the considerable American delegation sent to pay respects to the late king, women of prestige and national stature including Lisa Monaco, Obama’s counterterrorism adviser; Frances Fragos Townsend, a former counterterrorism adviser to President George W. Bush; Nancy Pelosi, minority leader of the House of Representatives; and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. If these women were Saudi, Abrams wrote, they “would be jailed for the crime of driving a car.” Adam Coogle of Human Rights Watch, noting Abdullah's reputation as a reformer, nodded to the momentum the King drummed up for women’s rights, but wrote that the agenda was hardly fulfilled: 

These reforms, however, did not address the key underlying issues entrenching discrimination against women, such as the male guardianship system, under which ministerial policies and practices forbid women from obtaining a passport, marrying, travelling, or accessing higher education without the approval of a male guardian, usually a husband, father, brother, or son. Despite Abdullah’s rhetorical support in 2005 for the idea of women driving, at his death they remain forbidden from getting behind the wheel, and authorities arrested women who dared challenge the driving ban. 

That Obama, knowing this, not only sent a sizable delegation, but cut short his own trip to India to pay respects in person on Tuesday in Riyadh, highlights the value placed on the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia. Of course Michelle Obama, who was traveling with her husband, saw her itinerary changed, too. 

According to the Daily Mail, when the president and Mrs. Obama left India on Tuesday, he was wearing a black suit and polka-dotted tie, and she was in a form-fitting floral dress that cut off just below the knees. When they landed, the president was in the same suit and tie, but Michelle Obama had changed into long slacks, a loose bright blouse, and a long-sleeved coat. Under the kingdom’s strict dress code (now controlled by King Salman, Abdullah's half-brother) and enforcement of Wahhabist law, Saudi women are required to wear a headscarf in public. The majority of women cover their hair and face, although foreign women do not have the same restrictions.

As a visible woman and public figure, Michelle Obama’s appearance is a frequent topic of conversation and commentary, all the more because of her race, her height, and her singular, superlative stature. According to the Washington Post, over 1,500 tweets were sent Tuesday using a hashtag that approximately translates to “Michelle_Obama_immodesty.” The Daily Mail noted that she “pulls faces,” that she “is not impressed,” that she “does not look happy to be meeting Saudi king as members of his entourage refuse to shake her hand.”

A number of media outlets reported that Saudi TV blurred out Michelle Obama's face at her meeting with the new king. According to Mother Jones, it was the person who uploaded the video to YouTube who obscured her face. (King Salman neither shook the first lady's hand, nor acknowledged her at all.)

Whatever the case, Michelle Obama has long used fashion to showcase fresh, diverse, often American designers: that’s an economic strategy. But she has also leveraged style, not as a way of making the self a decoration, but of making decoration expression—a means of self-respect, glamor, and fun. The mother of two girls, the first lady has quietly but forcefully made clothing—and nutritious living, not to mention toned arms—a political flash point.

Which is something to bear in mind Tuesday, admiring her blue blouse of an almost Yves-Klein brilliance. The first lady has worn a headscarf before, for instance on a trip in 2010 to Indonesia. But she did not wear one in Saudi Arabia.

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