As a matter of pop culture, Americans are often interested in the First Lady's wardrobe. Even those of us who frequently disagree with the policy stances of the Obama White House must admit that Mrs. Obama's attire is classy and stylish.
But the FLOTUS got some negative attention from the Saudi media and twittersphere for her lack of head covering at King Abdullah's recent funeral. Mrs. Obama wore a modest (by American standards) blue outfit that completely covered her legs and arms, and her jacket extended almost to knee-length. It was not tight or low-cut. But it is very different from the floor-length, flowing robes that Saudi Arabian women must wear in public at all times with a head covering that hides their face and hair.
Importantly, Mrs. Obama did not break any Saudi laws: While Saudi women face a strict dress code, foreign women who are visiting are not required to comply.
While some in Saudi Arabia felt that the First Lady's attire was immodest, many Americans have supported her wardrobe choice, explaining that as a Western woman she faces no obligation to conform to Saudi traditions or expectations. She is a representative of the United States, and therefore should dress as she chooses.
I could see how this wardrobe choice may have been difficult to navigate. When I have traveled in other countries with different expectations of modesty, I have sometimes chosen to cover my head or hair, not because of a law, but because it made me more comfortable to "fit in" and not draw attention to myself. I could understand if traveling women, even Western women with no obligation to cover themselves, made choices to show respect to a foreign culture or to avoid standing out in a crowd.
Then again, some in the United States might have criticized Mrs. Obama if she had covered her head, perhaps appearing to kowtow to Muslim traditions or un-American expectations for women.
But in any case, I imagine the First Lady is glad to return home, back in the USA where interest in her clothing is typically harmless, more of a discussion of style than of societal norms.
Perhaps her latest overseas visit opened her eyes — or maybe even President Obama's eyes — to the many ways women are oppressed in the Saudi regime. Given all the restrictions on women's rights, the dress code seems to be one of the lesser evils. Consider this list of things Saudi women cannot do (from TheWeek.com):
1. Go anywhere without a male chaperone
2. Drive a car
4. Go for a swim
5. Try on clothes while shopping
6. Enter a cemetery
7. Work in a lingerie shop (some stores have recently begun hiring female employees, but the majority are still staffed by men)
8. Read an uncensored fashion magazine
9. Buy a Barbie
10. Open a bank account without husband's permission
King Abdullah's legacy with respect to women's rights is abysmal. His own daughters have effectively been in house prison for the last 13 years.
American women are free to cover our heads (and many religious women in various countries may do this of their own will) — and we are free to not cover our heads. And that's just the beginning. In a way, Mrs. Obama's uncovered head is a symbol of the many freedoms American women enjoy.
To pretend that women are under attack in the U.S. is wrong. There's a "war on women," alright, but not in the United States. Those who wish to argue in favor of greater rights for women should speak out against real systematic legal discrimination like that in Saudi Arabia and other oppressive regimes.