Michelle Obama, Cultural Norms, and Making A Statement

You should all know by now that I’m one of the last people to be up to speed on current events in the political sphere. Having said that, I do pay attention to the news in my Facebook sidebar, which is how I found out that three days ago Michelle Obama joined her significant other on his trip to Saudi Arabia to pay respects to the recently deceased King Abdullah.

Oh yeah, and she also didn’t wear a head covering of any kind.

Now look, before we really dive into this I should probably remind everyone that being the spouse of a world leader is no cakewalk. To pick just one example out of many, Michelle Obama [referred to by full name to avoid confusion] announced the Best Picture winner at the 2013 Oscars. This prompted Conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin to share that:

“There is a sense of going too far and too much and becoming so ubiquitous that people don’t consider you something special. She is the first lady for goodness sakes. She’s not just a Hollywood celebrity.”

It’s a statement which . . . okay, it’s ridiculous. I would explore that further, especially the comment about the inherent celebrity within the status of POTUS and all related to the person in that role, but I just wanted to illustrate the fact that Michelle Obama is under a lot of scrutiny all of the time about everything.

Now let’s swing back to what happened on Tuesday. To “break it down”, as Gordon would say, Michelle Obama went without a head covering in Saudi Arabia, which is a country where women are required to cover their hair in public and the vast majority of which wear a niqab.

Cue the inevitable barrage of criticism, one source of which I’m going to be spotlighting because a) I find it both hilarious and b) deeply interesting, at least from the perspective of someone with an international background.

That source of disapproval is Twitter and the hashtag “#ميشيل_أوباما_سفور”. CNN offers a translation of those words, as well as elaborating on their usage,
revealing that:

“there were some 1,500 tweets with the Arabic hashtag #ميشيل_أوباما_سفور, which means roughly #Michelle_Obama_Unveiled. That is hardly a Twitterstorm, considering that Saudi Arabia has more than 5 million Twitter users.”

Now since then the hashtag has been co-opted by people, both Saudi and Muslim and otherwise, in defence of Michelle Obama, though what really amuses me is the fact that the “outspoken masses” [I’m sure someone has used that phrase to describe this] amount to the student body of the Christian liberal arts college I attended. In other words, not that many people are upset.

The CNN article I linked to above actually bears a headline reading that the so-called “‘scandal’ is bogus”. The BBC devoted five scant paragraphs to the issue, with Saudi journalist and academic Najah Al-Osaimi taking up the latter two and summing things up for what they really are:

“Many things have changed in Saudi. A foreign woman could come to Saudi Arabia and not wear a headscarf.”

Which is a great way to segue into what I really wanted to discuss, which is how people [the FLOTUS (which is a great acronym when read out loud) included] are expected to act when visiting foreign countries. Obviously Michelle Obama’s actions bear that much more weight given her status, especially given that many are convinced this was an act of protest.

An article on The Telegraph doesn’t beat around the bush, its title proclaiming “Make no mistake: Michelle Obama’s Saudia Arabia headscarf snub was deliberate and brilliant”. [A quick aside for the less-informed, the Middle Eastern country has been criticized for its treatment of women, one of the milder laws dictating that they must be accompanied by a male guardian at all times.] Sky News Political correspondent and author of said article Sophy Ridge is very clearly ascribing intent to the First Lady’s actions, and assuming she’s correct the question remains as to whether or not ignoring cultural norms can or should ever be warranted.

I ask this as a person who has lived a reasonable amount of time in two South East Asian countries, the latter of which [Thailand] bore considerable cultural differences from what I was used to. One thing that has stuck in my mind was their viewpoint on the head [don’t touch someone else’s] and feet [don’t show anyone the bottoms of yours or use them to point]. To follow these unspoken rules is to understand your place in a foreign culture, doing what you can not to offend.

Now of course the extent of Michelle Obama’s actual offence is significantly less than some may have you believe, as I’ve mentioned above. I can’t help but worry about the kind of diplomatic faux pas that can [and have] occurred, whether it’s George Bush Sr. flipping off all of Australia or U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry not quite understanding the gravity of the word “serious” in East Africa.

At the end of the day [and week] it remains to be seen how much of an effect the First Lady’s actions have caused, whether they were intentional or not. Assuming that they were [her wearing a head covering when visiting Indonesia, as seen before], however, what does this mean for her as far as continuing to make similar statements? Can and do similar actions extend to the average person visiting countries like Saudia Arabia, whether on business or as tourists? I’m asking a lot of questions, I realize, and hopefully I’ll be able to answer some of them sooner than later.


4 responses to “Michelle Obama, Cultural Norms, and Making A Statement

  1. Hey Evan – I think one place to start to find some answers might be to consider where you would draw the line between cultural norms and the oppression of peoples. For example, while I can see the wearing of a head covering as a cultural norm, a law dictating that all women must wear a head covering strikes me as an oppression of people. Thus, the First Lady’s actions can be viewed as a political (and appropriate) statement, as opposed to a deliberate ignorance or apathy towards cultural norms.

    • As I hope I communicated, I don’t think what Michelle Obama did was done in ignorance, deliberate or otherwise. It’s no mystery to the average person how women in most Middle Eastern countries are expected to dress. That being said, her actions can, you’re entirely correct, “be viewed as a political […] statement”.

      I think that the two criteria we should use to judge it, however, should be both appropriateness and effectiveness. Clearly she received her fair share of attention from the media, but to what end? If the result is that people all over the world now know that Michelle Obama probably isn’t down with the country’s laws concerning women what exactly has been accomplished?

  2. Good point, and I think I agree. There is always the possibility of invisible effectiveness, i.e., the message and the hope it may bring to people (possibly all around the world). That is much harder to measure.

  3. Pingback: Why The Internet Hates Sports | Culture War Reporters

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