President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama stand with new Saudi King Salman bin Abdul Aziz for a receiving line as they arrive at King Khalid International Airport, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2015. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Michelle Obama faced criticism for not covering her head during a recent visit to Saudi Arabia, but much of the controversy stemmed not from residents of the region, but from Americans.
President Obama and the first lady made a brief visit to Riyadh to expresses their condolences on the death of the late Saudi Arabian King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud. They also met the new king, Salman.
Dressed in a bright blue tunic with a long-sleeved jacket and black pants, Michelle Obama observed local custom by standing slightly behind her husband in the receiving line and smiling warmly, the New York Daily News reported. Only a few of King Salman’s all-male entourage shook the first lady’s hand, however.
Western women are usually not required to wear a head scarf—Minority House Leader Nancy Pelosi, former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and Princess Diana all went with their heads uncovered in their visits to the Middle East state. Still, some took to social media to criticize Obama’s unconcealed head with the hashtags “#Michelle_Obama_Immodest” and “#Michelle Obama with no headscarf” in Arabic.
The perceived backlash whipped the American news machine into a frenzy. But, according to the BBC, which surveyed the Twitter comments, the reactions were much ado about little.
According to BBC Monitoring, which tracked the topic, the Arabic hashtags criticizing the first lady were only tweeted 2,500 times—which is fairly insignificant in a country with a large Twitter following. As the Wall Street Journal’s Ahmed Al Omran summarized it: “Saudi has millions of Twitter users. When a few hundred of them talk about something, that’s not a backlash. It’s hardly a flicker.”
In fact, BBC noted, most of the posts on the topic came from Americans.
“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,” the BBC wrote. “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,” the BBC added, “only 37 percent of the tweets using the ‘Michelle Obama with no headscarf’ tag came from Saudi at all.”