If you’re in the States, you may have heard a thing or two about the Obamas’ visit to Riyadh last week, in order to pay respects to King Salman. You may also have heard a bit about how Michelle Obama didn’t cover her head, the Saudi state TV blurred out Michelle, etc. You may have even read the comments.
It’s always a bad idea to read the comments, folks. Especially about Saudi Arabia. (Although I admit I’m terrible at following my own advice.) Because when it comes to Saudi Arabia, suddenly everyone is an expert except the people who actually live out their lives in Saudi Arabia. Now, to be clear, I’m not an expert on anything. But, I mean, I do live as a woman in Saudi Arabia. I live with a Saudi family. I have Saudi friends and relatives. I’m raising a half-Saudi daughter. I don’t know everything, to be sure, but I think I might know a bit more than Joe Schmo behind his keyboard in Wasilla, Alaska, who knows–knows–that women in Saudi Arabia aren’t permitted out of the house without a male guardian and if they show their faces in public, they will be beaten.
This is one of my favorite things about discussing life in Saudi Arabia with people who don’t live here, by the way. (Note: that was sarcasm.) When people really, really want to believe whatever terrible thing they think they know, I’m often treated like I’m lying, brainwashed, puppeteered, or just plain stupid, because I’m simply a feebleminded woman who is weak and easily led. For the record, these attitudes are no different than those attributed to the scary Muslim/Arab/Saudi who supposedly pulls the strings in my brain. Same package, different wrapping.
Anyway, even though misinformation abounds about Saudi life, Saudis aren’t immune to catching ridiculous ideas about American life, either. In my experience, Americans and Saudis are equally prone to believing awful things about one another’s cultures. For example, I’ve had Saudis tell me that American kids must move out of their parents’ house at the age of 16. American children are kicked out of the house at that age and must fend for themselves, often turning to prostitution and drugs and alcohol to ease the pain of being thrown away by their families. Because Americans don’t value close-knit families. Saudis value close-knit families.
And then I’m like, “Uh, no.” And I explain that there is occasionally such a case, usually after the kid and his parents have been fighting continuously for a long time, but in reality, the vast majority of American children are absolutely not thrown out of their houses at age 16.
And then they’re like, “Oh, really! Well, that’s very good! I am happy to know that!”
And that right there is the primary difference between my interactions with Saudis about cultural differences with America and my interactions with Americans about cultural differences with Saudi Arabia. You tell a Saudi that they’ve got a certain aspect of American culture blown way out of proportion, they’re like, “Oh, okay! Great!” They’re happy to be wrong about that awful thing they thought. Because who wants to be right about something like that?
This is generally not how it goes in similar interactions I’ve had with my fellow Americans (or at the very least, this is not how it often goes; I’ve not kept statistics on this, although maybe I should).
No, many Americans often seem like they really, really want to believe all these terrible things they “know” about Saudi life. Even when their information is demonstrably false, they insist that no, it’s true! Their cousin’s roommate’s ex-boyfriend went to Saudi Arabia once and told them so! These Americans need to believe that their culture is leaps and bounds ahead of primitive Saudi Arabia. They so badly want to believe that by not covering her head, Michelle really enraged those backward Saudis and taught them a thing or two. I guess folks need to do this in order to feel better about themselves and their own culture. That is really the only explanation I can think of for the almost entirely autotrophic American media firestorm that erupted last week when pictures and video emerged of Michelle Obama being greeted by Saudi government officials with a brazenly uncovered head.
And the media feeds into this sense of cultural superiority. Openly. Unabashedly. I’ve written about this before, but it bears repeating now: journalistic integrity flies out the window when it comes to Saudi Arabia. Fact checking becomes unnecessary. If it fits the barbaric narrative, it gets reported. And then repeated. Over and over again. For instances of blatantly incorrect reporting, sometimes retractions follow, but rarely. And even when a retraction or clarification is made, it never gets the same amount of press as the original false or misleading story. And all I can do is sit back and watch the misinformation proliferate, because when I offer correct information via Facebook comments or such (again, I need to learn to stay out of the cesspool that is internet commentary), I’m asked (after being told, naturally, that my husband monitors my internet usage, that I will be beaten if I dare appear in public with my face uncovered, and that I must walk behind my husband at all times), “So you know more than CNN?” Well, not about much, but about this, it seems so. But only because CNN (like every other American media outlet) is atrociously lax about fact checking basic information when it comes to the country that I live in.
So here is some clarification in regard to the Obamas’ notorious visit to Riyadh last week.
1. Michelle didn’t cover her head.
Within 24 hours of the Obamas’ arrival, the internet was abuzz with news of how Michelle Obama made a stand for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia by not covering her head when she met with the Saudi king. The overall sentiment seemed to be that Michelle flouted Saudi law when she did this, and good for her, because she pissed off those backward Saudis by letting her freedom flag fly, baby!
There was just one problem with all that. Well, actually, there were a lot of problems with all that, but here are a few.
Despite the endless American reports of “outrage,” Saudis were very largely unconcerned with what Michelle did or didn’t have on her head. When the Obamas’ visit was in the news, not a single one of the Arabic trending hashtags on Saudi Twitter had anything to do with Michelle. Saudis were pretty interested in Air Force One, though. And the menu for the dinner at the palace. And the fact that King Salman left President Obama briefly around maghrib, the sunset prayer time, in order to attend to his ritual prayers. Those were all hot topics.
“Listen, American media is going crazy about how pissed off the Saudis on Twitter are about Michelle not wearing a tarha on her head,” I said to Mr. Mostafa. “Is that in any way true? Because I’m not seeing it.”
He looked puzzled. “What? I haven’t seen anything about that.”
“Yeah, supposedly there’s a lot of Saudi outrage?” I said.
“Hold on, let me look,” he said. He was quiet for several minutes as he did some research. “Oh, yeah, I guess here are a couple tweets about it, from ignorant religious people. But most of the people on the hashtag are making fun of the people who started it.”
Two, despite what internet commenters may tell you, it is not required for any woman in Saudi Arabia to cover her head in public. I’ve also written about this before, but I guess it bears repeating.
Now, I understand how folks who have never lived here can get confused about this. Before I moved here, I, too, used to believe that foreign women were permitted to not cover their heads if they chose, but that Saudi women were required to. It was my in-laws who set me straight on this shortly after I arrived. It is not required for any woman to cover her head in public in Saudi Arabia. Most Saudi women do, out of observation of social norms, a sense of religious obligation, other reasons, or a combination of many reasons. Many Saudi women also cover their faces. I cover my head, as many other Muslim expats do. Some non-Muslim expats do, as well, to ward off stares and deflect attention (much the same way a woman who covers in the States will be stared at, a woman who doesn’t cover will likely be stared at here, simply because in both cases, the view is out of the ordinary for many people). But plenty of women here don’t cover their heads. My mom never does when she visits.
This is my momma. In Saudi Arabia. With her head uncovered. Learning to smoke a hookah. A giant hookah, as a matter of fact. Taking a stand for Saudi women, one giant hookah puff at a time, or something.
A muttawa told my mom to cover her head once. I got snippy with him, we ignored him, and he kept on walkin’, because for better or worse, the muttawa can tell you they think you should cover your head, but they can’t arrest you for not covering your head.
Like I said, I understand how the average, everyday internet commenter could be confused about this. But the reason they are so confused, as I was, is that journalists tend to do such a crap job of fact checking these sorts of things. It seemed that everywhere I turned last week, I was reading yet another “news” site “explaining” that “foreign women in Saudi Arabia are not required to wear the headscarf.” “Women in Saudi Arabia must wear the headscarf, but foreign diplomats are excluded from this rule.” “Saudi women must cover completely, including their faces, but visiting women don’t have to.” Everyone, it seemed, had a reason why Michelle Obama didn’t cover her head. But it seems that nowhere was anyone getting it right: women are not required to cover their heads in Saudi Arabia.
Now, there is one garment that Michelle didn’t wear that is generally required for all women, Saudi or otherwise, to wear in public in Saudi Arabia: the abaya. It’s a long, thin, black cloak that goes over one’s street clothes. Every woman, whether foreign or Saudi, must wear one in public (unless you’re in the Diplomatic Quarter, a gated and heavily guarded neighborhood where almost all of Riyadh’s foreign embassies are located), and if Michelle Obama had gone mallwalking or something sans abaya, there probably would have been a lot more discussion on Saudi Twitter about her wardrobe. But airport to palace and back to airport does not exactly constitute public, and anyway, even though Michelle didn’t wear an abaya, her outfit was loose, modest, and covered every part of her body that an abaya would have covered, had she worn one.
So as much as Americans might want to think otherwise, Michelle’s outfit was not revolutionary, nor was her lack of headscarf. Her clothing was obviously carefully chosen to respect cultural norms. Now, if she had appeared at the gathering in a kicky sleeveless, knee-length summer dress with a pair of strappy sandals, a case could be made that she was trying to send a message. But as it was…nope. And even if she had chosen an outfit without quite so much coverage, none of the men present would have dropped dead at the sight of an ankle. Really. I mean, Michael Scott was a walking joke in almost every way, but it appears that far too many Americans believe his grasp of Middle Eastern gender politics was totally spot-on.
2. Most of the members of the Saudi delegation that greeted the President didn’t shake Michelle Obama’s hand.
From what I’ve heard, a few members of the delegation tasked with greeting President Obama did shake Michelle’s hand, but most did not offer a handshake to the First Lady (nor did Michelle offer handshakes to anyone, which, again, if she had, might have been an indication that she was taking some sort of stand…but she didn’t). The videos show Michelle politely nodding back at the delegates who chose to acknowledge her with a nod, but not a handshake.
This isn’t unusual from a cultural or a religious perspective. In Saudi culture, men and women typically don’t touch unrelated members of the opposite sex, unless the situation requires it (for example, if you have to see a doctor). Although I am Muslim and generally don’t ever decline an offered handshake, plenty of religious Muslims, men and women alike, do avoid shaking hands with or otherwise touch unrelated members of the opposite sex, and not just Muslims (Orthodox Jews do it, too. So do Buddhist monks).
Michelle was standing to the left of the President, behind him. She was also holding a black clutch handbag with both her hands. Also, she is not the President. I’m guessing that had a wife of the king been present (which, quite frankly, would have been very nice to see; I think everyone can agree that Saudi Arabia suffers from a dearth of public female representation in government, although currently, the percentage of women appointed to the Shoura Council, the visible but essentially powerless advisory body to the king, is greater than the percentage of women currently serving in the U.S. Congress), there would have been no uproar if the Americans hadn’t gone up to her to shake her hand. Or, actually, there probably would have been, especially if she had politely refused to shake the men’s hands on religious grounds. Then it would have been, “Do you see how oppressed the women are? She can’t even shake a man’s hand! I mean, really, what kind of sexual feelings are stirred up by a handshake? She’s obviously refusing because she’s terrified of what her husband would do to her if she did shake hands. Those poor Saudi women!”
In regard to headscarf-gate, American folks have been (correctly) commenting, “Can you imagine what the reaction would have been if Michelle had worn the headscarf? ‘See, we told you! The Obamas are closet Muslims! Sharia law is a-comin’!'” I would like to present another hypothetical: can you imagine what the reaction would have been if the male members of the Saudi delegation had made it a point to go up to Michelle and shake her hand, even though she was standing behind the President and out of the way, while holding something in her hands? “See, look at those repressed Saudis! So desperate to touch a woman that they’re practically charging the First Lady. So barbaric!”
3. Saudi state TV did not blur out Michelle Obama.
This was originally reported by Bloomberg TV, and it spread like wildfire. Except it wasn’t true. Although Bloomberg did later issue a retraction once it was roundly denied that Saudi state TV blurred out Michelle when they covered her arrival and meeting with the king, you can still find endless articles with references to “reports” that she was blurred out. Reports that are, once again, totally false. Heck, it’s even on Snopes.
As I always do when writing a post of this nature, here is where I must offer the disclaimer that I am not defending everything the Saudi state does, nor am I saying that every single aspect of life in Saudi Arabia is peachy keen, jellybean. But that doesn’t mean that ethnocentric, imperialistic, neocolonial, racist, Islamophobic, and just plain inaccurate media coverage about the country is okay. It’s dehumanizing and inexcusable. And if you’re a consumer of Western media, you might want to start thinking about why this happens, who it serves, how it shapes your worldview, who that serves, and what else you may not be getting the whole truth about. I know that as a direct result of living in Saudi Arabia, I certainly have.
Phew. And now, simply for the sake of my own sanity, I can’t help but hope that the Obamas don’t come back to Saudi Arabia for the remainder of Barack’s presidency.