Bravo Michelle Obama. Cultural sensitivity no excuse for oppressing women.

Because women’s rights are human rights too.

US President Barack Obama and his wife/First Lady Michelle, visited Saudi Arabia after the death of its King Abdullah this week.

And while the visit was meant to be centred around the Obamas expressing their condolences and meeting Abdullah’s successor King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, it was Michelle Obama herself who became the focus of the Tuesday trip.

Because although the 51-year-old lawyer and First Lady dressed conservatively, in loose clothing that covered her arms and legs, she did not cover her hair during the official visit. In a country where most women are mostly swathed in long, black cloaks called abayas, usually paired with the hijab, niqab, or burqa, Michelle’s move was rather scandalous.

It even sparked a social media uproar, with hundreds of Saudis taking to Twitter to condemn the move using the hashtag “#Michelle_Obama_Immodest” and “#Michelle_Obama_NotVeiled”.

Some critics argued the move was deliberately defiant, pointing out that Queen Elizabeth wore a headscarf on her visit to the Gulf in 1979 and that Michelle herself was veiled during a visit to Indonesia in 2010.

Although she dressed conservatively in loose clothing that covered her arms and legs, Michelle Obama did not cover her hair during the official visit. (Photo: Getty Images)

But today, I’m opposing the vocal social media army, who shared their outrage more than 1,500 times using the  #Michelle_Obama_Immodest hashtag following the visit. Because on this one? They got it wrong.

First, Westerners are not technically required to cover their heads when visiting Saudia Arabia.

Second, the First Lady did not visit religious buildings, like when she attended a mosque in Indonesia.

And finally but most importantly, I simply believe it’s entirely reasonable for Michelle Obama to go headscarf-free in Saudia Arabia. To quote Amy Davidson from the New Yorker, Michelle simply didn’t owe anyone a headscarf. In fact, if she chose not to wear one to make a political point — as I suspect she did — then the lady should be applauded.


To those who say it was culturally insensitive of her to shun the local dress, I say: screw that.

“But Saudia Arabia’s treatment of women is abhorrent by the standards of most other countries in the world, and falls foul of a huge range of international human rights laws. So good on Michelle Obama for taking a stand, if that’s what she intended.”

Because sure, being culturally sensitive is generally advisable, and certainly necessary in many diplomatic situations; and sure, if Michelle chose to purposefully offend another culture just for the hell of it — touching people’s heads in Thailand, wearing shoes in a temple, scoffing food in public during Ramandan in some countries — then yes, bring on the outraged cries of cultural imperialism.

But cultural sensitivity needs to stop where universal human rights standards begin. And Saudia Arabia’s treatment of women, which falls foul of a huge range of international human rights laws,  is abhorrent by the standards of most other countries in the world.

It remains the only country in the world where women are not allowed to drive; consider the case of Loujain Hathloul, who was arrested and had her passport confiscated for trying to drive late last year.

Loujain Hathloul. (Image: Twitter)

Women also make up less than 20 percent of the workforce in Saudia Arabia, and guardianship laws require women to get permission from a male relative to travel, get married, enrol in tertiary education or undergo some surgical procedures, reports.

Genders are strictly segregated in the country, with gender roles defined by Sharia law; In Saudi culture, the Sharia is interpreted according to a strict Sunni form known as the way of the Salaf or Wahhabism.

Although the late King Abdullah — whose passing was the reason for the Obamas’ visit — oversaw some slight improvements on the women’s rights front, consider this: Last year Abdullah’s daughters, Princesses Sahar and Jawaher, told Channel 4 News they effectively live under house arrest.

The Princesses said they’d been held in the royal compound in Jeddah for 13 years; They claimed they are not allowed to travel and “no-one is allowed in or out” and that “our father, the king, is responsible.”

Despite these claims, King Abdullah remained King in Saudia Arabia. That’s the kind of country we’re talking about.

So while some women around the world choose to wear a niqab or burqa — and that is their choice — the women in Saudi Arabia do not have a choice about what they wear. Nor do they have a choice about where they go, or what they study, or how they control their fertility.

Michelle Obama did have that choice, and she chose to exercise it (intentionally, I suspect) to draw attention to an issue the world could be doing a heck of a lot more about.

I for one hope that she will continue to do more because, as  writes for Fortune, it’s problematic that the United States remains a strong ally of Saudi Arabia, despite being fully aware of these atrocities.

As Richard Dawkins eloquently tweeted: “Michelle Obama goes some way to redeem the ignominy of her husband’s crawling to the odious Saudi regime.”

Cultural sensitivity is all well and good — until culture becomes an excuse for the oppression of women.