Apparently the most contentious element of the American-Saudi alliance is the decision of First Lady Michelle Obama to go before the new Saudi king, gasp, bareheaded.
Forget decades of hypocritical condemnations of tyrants in the Middle East while maintaining the strongest of ties with a monarchy that stifles freedom of expression, erases the presence of women from public life and funnels money to political groups in order to sustain conflicts in the region.
Forget the American obsession with Islamism, Wahabism and shariah law that are casually overlooked in the instance of Saudi Arabia because of an American love for oil.
Forget the recent sanitization of a king's legacy as a "reformer" after his death to appease allies despite condemnations regarding the scheduled flogging of a blogger by the same government just weeks earlier.
Forget all of that. Michelle Obama dared go before the Saudi's without a headscarf. What a noble act of defiance in the face of a brutally repressive regime. Right?
A more appropriate act of defiance might be for the U.S. to actually address the myriad of human rights abuses perpetrated by Saudi Arabia, or to cut ties with such an oppressive regime. But that isn't in our interests, now is it? What is in the interest of human rights apparently has to do with FLOTUS's fashion choices.
Last night, ABC News shared a photo linked to an article on its Facebook page that originally read: "Leaving her head uncovered in Saudi Arabia, a country where women have few rights, the First Lady leads by example."
There is no denying that Saudi Arabia has a terrible track record for women's (and human) rights; however, the overtly Orientalist perspective that has reared its ugly-yet-not-unexpected head through the explosion of this story in American media remains troubling and problematic.
While one dimension of this media circus is the manufacturing of a story where none exists, another is exaggeration of the "backlash" in reference to the reaction of Saudis and/or Muslims to FLOTUS not wearing a hijab, which a Washington Post piece quantifies as "more than 1,500 tweets using the hashtag #ميشيل_أوباما_سفور (roughly, #Michelle_Obama_unveiled)" sent Tuesday.
More troubling than the blitz of coverage devoted to a decision that Obama may or may not have done deliberately, ascribing and defining intention when Obama herself has not spoken out, is that the above-mentioned headline implies that uncovering your head is a gesture of leadership and an act of defiance in the face of an oppressive imposition upon women.
However, the covering of the head is an element of Islam that has nothing to do with Saudi Arabia, and although Saudi Arabia enforces it in most of its cities and towns, to link the practice of wearing hijab to the brutality of this regime is misleading and reeks of an implicitly assumed Western superiority.
The disconnect between the praise of this allegedly "bold statement" made by Obama and the twisted and duplicitous American devotion to the Saudi regime wouldn't be as glaring if it wasn't for the fact that American media outlets just (falsely) praised King Abdallah for being a "reformer" of women's rights just days earlier.
The controversy does not lie in the fact that Obama did not wear the headscarf, but in the deluded innuendo this story brings forth; that Muslim women can not lead, can not speak and do not have rights because the pieces of cloth on their heads inhibit them from doing so. Not because of oppressive regimes, unjust laws, or the gaze of men obsessed with what women do and do not wear.
American media's misogynistic obsession with Obama's fashion choices is apparent in the language used to describe her as merely an accessory to her husband: "Wearing pants and her head uncovered, Mrs. Obama stood dutifully beside her husband...." Even in the midst of her so-called brazen act of defiance, Obama is reduced to what she wore and how she stood.
Whether Obama wore a scarf or not, this incident is evident of the fact that the actions of women are interpreted and analyzed through the lens of patriarchy and detached from the political and social conditions that enable the oppression of women.
If my decision to wear a headscarf was conversely described as in defiance of the West's objectification of women, that would indeed be a different story.