Michelle Obama headscarf controversy - do Saudis really care?

  • 28 January 2015
Michelle Obama in Saudi Arabia
Image caption In Saudi Arabia, where veiling is obligatory for women, Michelle Obama appeared in public without her hair covered

When Michelle Obama appeared at her husband's side in Saudi Arabia without wearing a headscarf, you might expect a backlash on social media.

Only it didn't really materialise.

Although some foreign media reported a big social media controversy, an Arabic hashtag that translates as "Michelle Obama with no headscarf" or "Michelle Obama immodesty" was in fact tweeted about 2,500 times - not a small number, but not overwhelming in a country with a relatively high Twitter following.

And significantly, this "backlash" was dwarfed by another tag related to the US President's visit to the kingdom. "King Salman leaves Obama to pray" attracted more than 170,000 messages. Saudis used this slogan to show their warm admiration for new King Salman leaving during the Obamas' visit to pray, as shown in a news report that was widely viewed on YouTube. "This is the man who left the leader of the most important country in the world to pray," a Saudi tweeted.

BBC Monitoring, which was tracking the criticism of Michelle Obama, said most tweeters from the Arab world using "Michelle Obama with no headscarf" were making fun of the situation and of conservative Saudi regulations. Some were sharing pictures of a Michelle Obama wearing a headscarf during a trip to Malaysia in 2010, while others used the tag to call for more freedoms in the kingdom.

Far fewer voices were angry at the first lady's uncovered head, and a huge number of tweets came from US users slamming Saudi traditions. In fact only 37% of the tweets using the "Michelle Obama with no headscarf" tag came from Saudi at all.

Image caption Other female dignitaries have also opted not to wear a headscarf during their visit to Saudi Arabia

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