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The First Lady's attire generates controversy

By Ron Wynn


Throughout much of President Obama's two terms, First Lady Michelle Obama has largely escaped either the controversy or criticism that's often accompanied her husband. There's been occasional grumbling regarding her initiatives with school lunches, and right-wing pundit and 2016 GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee tried to create some controversy with remarks criticizing both Obamas for their friendship with Jay-Z and Beyonce. But that generated more backlash against Huckabee than negative publicity for the First Lady.


But Tuesday, while accompanying her husband on his current world trip, the First Lady found herself in the news for reasons of attire. The Obamas were in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, paying their respects to the late Saudi King Abdullah. The strategic importance of Saudi Arabia was underscored by the fact the President cut short his visit to India and made certain he was there to meet with Abdullah's successor. However, in many publications, there were just as many stories about what the First Lady wasn't wearing when she was photographed.


The Associated Press formally noted in a featured photograph that Michelle Obama did not wear a headscarf or veil. In Saudi Arabia, that's unusual: The country is one of the few remaining places on Earth where women are expected to cover their heads, and most Saudi women wear niqabs.


In fairness, the Associated Press, as well as the Washington Post, New York Times and others informed readers that exceptions are made for foreigners. The First Lady wore loose clothing that fully covered her arms. Other photos from official events also show other foreign female guests not wearing headscarves.


But that didn't matter to right-wing talk show hosts and publications, who began a drum beat of criticism claiming the First Lady had disrespected both Saudi Arabia and Muslims. Others used an Arabic hashtag to highlight their attacks on Twitter. Some mentioned that Michelle Obama had won a headscarf during a visit to Indonesia, and they wondered why she decided not to wear one this time.


Still, others either praised the First Lady or accused her critics of an overreaction. For instance, Ahram Online responded that some Twitter users said she shouldn't be harshly criticized since this was both a short and impromptu trip. Also, despite what right-wing pundits claimed, Saudi state television showed images of the First Lady and her uncovered head, despite their claims they had digitally obscured her (a widely circulated video with the first lady entirely blurred seems to have been an amateur production).


Part of this is the fallout from intense international scrutiny aimed at Saudi Arabia's dismal human rights record. The timing of the Obamas' trip, coupled with the fact the President didn't send anyone to the recent rally in Paris, provided ammunition for the regular corps of presidential detractors. The public flogging of blogger Raif Badawi for insulting Islam was also included in the general wave of criticism. However, this trip was apparently designed to be apolitical — the President even Obama said he was "unlikely" to discuss Badawi's case with the new Saudi king.


This furor is quite hypocritical since much of it comes from people who otherwise routinely and regularly espouse anti-Muslim sentiments, whether on the air or in their newspaper and website articles and commentaries. Appropriately, the First Lady has been widely praised by women's groups and applauded on both feminist and Black websites for wearing what she chooses while finding a way to not overly alienate or anger a sovereign nation.


Indeed, there's far less outcry from the Arab and Muslim world than the right-wing press and their supporters, another indication that when it comes to the Obamas, whether the President or the First Lady, some folks will always find fault.

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