Much Ado About Nothing? Michelle Obama's Bare Head Sparks Debate

The First Lady, during a trip to Saudi Arabia, followed in the footsteps of predecessors including Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush

Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty

Did First Lady Michelle Obama break new ground by declining to cover her head during a trip to Saudi Arabia this week?

Not at all, it turns out. But that didn’t stop the move from creating a social media firestorm.

The First Lady, 51, accompanied President Barack Obama to the Middle Eastern nation on Tuesday to pay respects following the death of Saudi King Abdullah and prompted an outpouring of Tweets – both critical and supportive – about her decision to keep her head bare during the visit. (She did wear loose-fitting clothing that covered her arms.)

According to The Washington Post, more than 1,500 people Tweeted a message in Arabic that roughly translated to #Michelle_Obama_unveiled, with many calling out the First Lady for failing to cover her head in Saudi Arabia, but opting to do so during a recent trip to Indonesia.

However, it turns out FLOTUS is far from the only high-profile American woman to keep her head uncovered in Saudi Arabia, where the custom is for female citizens to cover their heads. Visiting foreign women are not held to the same rule, and according to ThinkProgress, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton kept her head uncovered while meeting with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal and others in the country in March 2012. First Lady Laura Bush also kept her head bare while meeting with Saudi King Abdullah at the Riyadh Airport in May 2008. And German Chancellor Angela Merkel stayed uncovered while visiting King Abdullah’s palace in 2010.

“I’ve never known an official American female to cover in Saudi Arabia,” Jon Alterman, the director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told CBS News. “It feels like this is people discovering what has been true for quite a long time.”

Scott Talan, a professor of public communication at American University, told CBS News that social media has made it seem as if the First Lady was taking a stand when she was merely following in the footsteps of her predecessors.

“For many people, she is the first because of seeing it in social media and seeing it shared by friends and commented on by friends,” Talan said. “People are not reading history books and going back to former first ladies … they’re reacting to the visuals and the context of the controversy, ipso facto.”

Indeed, the non-controversy even earned the First Lady an unlikely supporter: Sen. Ted Cruz.

On Wednesday, the conservative leader praised the First Lady on Twitter: “Kudos to @FLOTUS for standing up for women & refusing to wear Sharia-mandated head-scarf in Saudi Arabia. Nicely done.”

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