Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia sparks controversy

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama visited the Saudi Arabia capital, Riyadh, last Tuesday in order to pay his respects to the late Saudi King Abdullah. This visit was unplanned and had interrupted the president’s busy trip to India, reflecting the importance of Saudi-American economic and political relations. The visit took place under the cloud of a number of issues currently affecting Saudi Arabia and the U.S. These issues included: the growing threat of the Islamic State, economic opportunities and changes, climate change, and the imprisonment of the Saudi blogger, Raif Badawi, during a time when issues of freedom of speech and its consequences are at the center of Western media.

In spite of the importance and urgency of these issues, the attention of the media shifted toward the First Lady, Michelle Obama, who chose not to wear a headscarf when meeting the new Saudi king.

In a country that follows the Sharia Law – where women’s rights are not considered integral concepts in its constitution – women usually face oppression in their daily lives; it is not acceptable for a Saudi woman to drive a vehicle, and all Saudi women must cover their body and hair for the sake of humility and purity. The issue of the headscarf (hijab) often manages to arise in debate of a conversation regarding religion or the Middle East (which are conceptually intertwined). The discussion of Middle Eastern religious customs comes during a time when European countries are facing multiple waves of migration which affect them not only economically but also politically and socially. This change in demography is resulting in unrest caused by the rising xenophobic public and the increasing tendency toward fundamentalism and traditionalism.