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US media coverage of Michelle Obama's Saudi Arabia trip isn't just wrong — it's racist

New Saudi King Salman, at right, with Michelle Obama at a ceremony in Saudi Arabia
New Saudi King Salman, at right, with Michelle Obama at a ceremony in Saudi Arabia

As soon as President Obama and Michelle Obama arrived in Saudi Arabia this week to mourn Saudi King Abdullah, it was inevitable that there would be a nonsense media controversy of some kind over the visit, and it didn't take long. There is a growing tempest of coverage over Michelle Obama's decision to not wear a veil to the ceremony.

Here's the story, as you will encounter it throughout the American media: Saudi Arabia is an ultra-conservative country where Saudi women have second-class status, which includes mandatory veiling while in public (this is true). Michelle, by not wearing a veil at this high-profile diplomatic event, was either taking a principled stand on behalf on women's rights, or she was openly defying the dictatorial Saudi monarchs, or she was insulting a close American ally. Whatever her intention, it caused an uproar throughout Saudi Arabia, and it probably infuriated her hosts.

But those narratives are all false, on specific factual grounds as well as broader conceptual grounds. Declarations that she made a "bold political statement" don't just exist in a bizarrely fact-free environment, they perpetuate American misconceptions about Saudi Arabia and the Arab world that are fundamentally racist, rooted in the idea that Arabs are such inherently backward cavemen that even top government leaders would be somehow shocked to see an unveiled woman.

Since no one else seems interested in presenting them (the truth doesn't matter when it comes to covering Saudi Arabia, for some reason), here are some actual facts about this story and what they mean:

  1. American officials in Saudi Arabia typically do not wear headscarves, including at formal government functions. Michelle was following normal protocol.
  2. Former first ladies Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton did not wear headscarves on similar official visits to Saudi Arabia. Neither did former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
  3. Saudi Arabia is officially ultra-conservative, but it is also heavily integrated into the global economy; unveiled Western women are extremely common in elite government circles like this one. Unveiled female Western leaders are common sights on Saudi media.
  4. I feel very confident that no one at the ceremony blinked at seeing Michelle Obama unveiled. Saudi royals are comfortable with the West and with Western customs; many spend long parts of the year in Europe and a number were educated in American boarding schools or colleges. They are accustomed to seeing unveiled women, and to working and interacting with powerful women.
  5. Despite reports of a Saudi social media backlash against the first lady for going unveiled, tweets complaining about her appearance appear to have been quite limited. As the Wall Street Journal's Ahmed Al Omran put it, "Saudi has millions of Twitter users. When a few hundred of them talk about something, that's not a backlash. It's hardly a flicker."
  6. It is true that there is a powerful ultra-conservative clerical establishment in Saudi Arabia, and that ultra-conservatism has a real constituency there. But it is easy to overstate the popularity of this movement and its causes. In any case, people are aware that Western women don't wear veils.
  7. The American media's assumption that Saudis are all cavemen whose faces would melt on seeing an unveiled woman is not just overly simplistic, but is rooted in racist assumptions about Arabs and Muslims as inherently and universally backwards. Unsurprisingly, many in the US have seized on this to perpetuate Islamophobic fearmongering about Muslims, such as when US Senator Ted Cruz tweeted, "Kudos to @FLOTUS for standing up for women & refusing to wear Sharia-mandated head-scarf in Saudi Arabia."
  8. Further, the glee with which the American media praises any supposed defiance of Arab or Muslim social norms should be unnerving. In this story, as with past stories such as the American praise of Emirati fighter pilot Maryam al-Mansouri, even stories ostensibly about empowering Arab women end up emphasizing the degree to which that empowerment matters because it humiliates Arab men, in this case Saudi monarchs.
  9. Consider how this story would have gone if Michelle Obama had worn a veil. As Nidal Diaz, an Ottawa-based analyst, pointed out on the Facebook wall of a Middle East-based journalist who had posted about the controversy, the first lady "was in fact standing in front of the world, and any analysis should take this into consideration." Diaz continued:

In this light, the First Lady's choice to very visibly not make any attempt to cover her hair was, for all thing considered, the safest and least bravest option. The unfortunate truth is that this had little to do with her making a stand for a woman's right to not wear a veil and/or the Saudi government's institutionalized sexism but more to do with attempting to avoid further perpetuating the American Right's obsession for stigmatizing Obama and family as Muslims, and, approaching an election year, to prevent the Democrat administration from appearing to submit to the way of life of the vilified Saudis/Wahhabis. Beyond that, I highly doubt that whatever vitriol she got on Saudi social media and blogosphere would have even compared to the backlash she would have gotten had she been pictured wearing a veil at Abdullah's funeral.

In other words, an American first lady went to a Muslim country and followed completely normal protocol by going unveiled. There was very little reaction within that country, and no reaction among her hosts. The American media completely freaked out, got a number of basic facts wildly wrong, and did so all in a way that insulted that country and its citizens by perpetuating racist stereotypes. Meanwhile, the first lady's decision was probably a simple effort to follow protocol, and if anything else influenced her it was likely fear of American extremists who hate Muslims and see any sign of disrespect to Muslim cultural norms as laudable.

The Saudi government is indeed a despotic dictatorship and horrific human rights abuser — it has beheaded three people in the week since the king died — particularly when it comes to women. It is unfortunate and ironic that, in an attempt to highlight this problem, much of the American media has instead only perpetuated the different but very real American problem of Islamophobic and anti-Arab stereotyping.

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Correction: This article initially stated that the Obamas were in Saudi Arabia to attend Abdullah's funeral. In fact, they were attending what has been described as a condolence or mourning ceremony; the official funeral had taken place a few days earlier. The article has been corrected.

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