“As far as I’m concerned not every woman should work but every woman who wants to work should be able to work.” -Saudi Princess Ameerah
Lately, posts and articles have been circulating about First Lady Michelle Obama and her visit to Saudi Arabia following the late King Abdullah's death. Some reports say that she has sparked "outrage" by not wearing an Islamic headcovering while in the country. The reason this has supposedly sparked controversy is because of a national dress code in the country (which both men and women are required to adhere to). Though Western women and visitors are often exempted from this law, some people were apparently upset at her decision not to wear a veil. Others, on the other hand, say this is a bold political move to protest the Kingdom's treatment of women.
Now I'm as much of a feminist as the next guy, but articles like this are just poor, sensationalist journalism. Not many people in Saudi Arabia are upset and most probably don't care. It is also just as unlikely that Michelle is making a political statement (most female American political figures have refrained from wearing a headscarf). Unfortunately, Mrs. Obama was probably in a no-win situation to begin with. By not wearing a headcovering, some people have gotten upset about cultural sensitivity. By wearing one, others would say she is bowing to the sexist demands of an authoritarian state. So why is the headscarf such a big deal?
First, let's quickly discuss the different types of Islamic coverings. The hijab is probably the most popular covering in the Middle East and covers only the hair and neck while leaving the face completely visible. The niqab is commonly found in the Gulf States (particularly Saudi Arabia) and covers everything except for the eyes. The burqa, on the other hand, covers everything including the eyes and is rarely found except in some areas of Central Asia. Some men also wear headcoverings, the Taqiyah (probably known best as the skull cap thing) and the keffiyeh (worn by Saudis in the picture above and more of a cultural garment) are the most popular of these.
The basis for wearing a headcovering comes from culture as well as religion (as stated before, most people outside the Gulf States commonly wear just the hijab). The earliest religious justifications typically come from Qur'anic surah (chapter) 24 which emphasizes modest dress among men and women. A later verse in surah 33 mentions the need for women to cover themselves when they go out so as not to be harassed. Like all religious texts, some people have adapted this belief to fit modern times, while others continue to adhere strictly to the literal text. This phenomenon is also not unique to Islam. Some Orthodox Christians cover their hair, while Jewish women will sometimes wear a Sheitl and a wig to hide their real hair.
In places throughout the region that do not have mandatory covering laws (as seen below, the vast majority, while Turkey actually banned the hijab among government workers for awhile), wearing a scarf or covering is not always a decree from the father, brother, or husband. Women often cover themselves because they wish to be modest (as they interpret it). To women who wish to wear a veil, not wearing one may feel like going outside in a skimpy bikini or even being naked. One of the most important points which is often left out when discussing Islamic modest dress (particularly in Saudi Arabia) is that it is also enforced among men. In Saudi Arabia, both men and women are required to cover everything except for the hands, feet, and face (the niqab is just the most visible of these coverings). This does not excuse the restrictive nature of the law, but it is incorrect to think that only women are being forced to dress a certain way. There are plenty of cases throughout the world where men force women to cover themselves who do not wish to be covered, and that is unfair. Ultimately, it ought to be up to the individual to decide how to dress.
Another controversy from this trip sprung up around the actions of several Saudi Arabian guards who greeted the Obamas as the departed their plane in Riyadh. Some of the all male guard shook hands with Mrs. Obama, but others only nodded and refused to shake her hand. Again, this goes back to some (though not all) Islamic interpretations of modesty. Unrelated men and women typically do not shake hands or touch each other (it would be like kissing a stranger, kinda awkward and just feels weird). To put it simply, some of those men likely felt very uncomfortable at the idea of shaking the hand of a woman they had never met. Many women, in return, would not feel comfortable with a man walking up to shake her hand. Instead, Muslim men and women often nod in acknowledgement of each other (as many of the guards did).
The bigger issue at hand here is the general discussion of women's rights in the Kingdom. We should remember that this country has a very long cultural and religious tradition for doing what they are doing. This doesn't make it right, but we can't expect things to change overnight. Furthermore, we can't assume that just because something is done in the U.S. (not wearing a hijab) that it is automatically the right thing to do and that all other countries should follow suit. Viewing Muslims as barbaric and strange for their choice in clothing is exactly the type of Orientalist thinking which should be avoided (and is the inspiration for the namesake of this blog).
That being said, there are some serious inequality concerns which ought to be addressed in the Kingdom. Women have been protesting for more rights and freedoms for quite awhile. Cases such as the protest against Saudi Arabia's ban on female drivers are one such example. Even larger inequalities (banning women from holding certain jobs or prohibiting women from traveling without a chaperone) will require large changes in Saudi society. A bunch of foreign Americans telling Saudis how to treat women in their country is only going to cause resentment. As outsiders who wish to see change, we can encourage women to agitate for more rights, but we can't give them equality outright. In the meantime, the United States can do what it does best: lead by example. Showing the world how a country ought to treat minorities and women is the best way to get others to follow suit (not that we are perfect on that by any means).
In the end, the decision to wear a scarf is Mrs. Obama's alone. It isn't a bad thing to want to respect the cultural traditions of a place that you visit, but we also shouldn't be surprised when some people are offended that she did not wear a headcovering. There are many different worldviews, and that is not always a bad thing. Ultimately, this should not be a distraction from the much more important discussion about basic human rights and discrimination in the heart of the Middle East.
TL;DR: Many women choose to cover their hair out of modesty, others out of coercion. Either way, there are much bigger equality issues in the Kingdom than a few naked heads.