Why this is the one time Michelle Obama’s outfit is actually important

The curious case of liberals and conservatives praising Michelle Obama together, for the same thing, on the same day, is enough to warrant some discussion.

While many news sources say that the First Lady’s outfit worn while paying her respects to the late King Abdullah “has caused a stir,” others have pointed to media selectivity in choosing which stories to focus on. Given the tidal wave of attention in the US to Saudi Arabia since the King’s death, however, the fact that this particular “story” is “news” may be somewhat predictable.

On the one hand, it might simply be considered a sign of respect by some (read: many) to wear a scarf to a royal funeral—if that is something the royal family actually even cares about, and not just some folks on Twitter. I have donned a headscarf in similar situations in some Muslim-majority countries, just out of respect. Not a huge deal. More or less akin to the Western Christian requirement in place when I visited the Vatican some years ago to cover my shoulders. Or the Eastern Christian requirement to wear a headscarf to take Communion when I visited Etchmiadzin (the Armenian equivalent of the Vatican). In both of those cases, I didn’t have a scarf with me, and I was denied access. I survived; I moved on. I’m okay now. Really. Who cares.

But I’m not the First Lady, either. That does make a difference in how much importance this sort of thing is given, as we’ve now seen, although many other Western female political figures have not worn headscarves when visiting Saudi Arabia in the past. And maybe it’s not just reveling liberals (See here. And here. And here. And here. And here. And here.), startlingly pleased conservatives (See here. And here. And here. And here. And here. And here. Of course that last one being Fox, not forgetting to bash Obama’s professional credibility while they’re at it*), and video as well as opinions on platforms that seem to embrace a bit of both and may actually aim to be balanced (See here. And here.), or US-based entertainment media outlets drooling over it, but even some non-American media outlets (See here. And here. And here.) and political figures (as reported here) chirped in their say. To say we were inundated with opinions about the significance of Michelle’s wardrobe choices may only scratch the surface.

Then, maybe once liberals saw conservatives running away with their hard-won glory over Michelle’s attire, a liberal-dominated backlash-against-the-backlash began to roll out (See here, here, and definitely here in a choice display of a media phenomenon I’ve written about previously), in the uber snark hipster-speak that is specially valued by some liberals as evidence of superior understanding and authority (versus the comparably vacuous and confusingly popular stump speeches we often see from some of the conservative camps), all basically telling us in not so many words that we’re all idiots for caring… even as it was being hailed by US news outlets of every persuasion until last night. Maybe this morning. Respectable international outlets have followed suit, and a couple of op-eds from US-based outlets have either rolled back or have shown us examples of what journalism can look like when it’s not a kneejerk reaction.

But the thing is, it really is okay to care. This time.

Maybe not about Michelle’s wardrobe (ever, ever again, please, I beg of any and all pundits reading this), but about the larger discussion that has spun off from this and could actually be useful if we focus on the substance and not the fluff. Given so many of the Saudi-specific issues about women’s rights and human rights generally that have not received the coverage they deserve, especially in US media—as well as the central role of the US in the history of supporting such oppression in the name of national interest—there may have been some sort of message at play here in her outfit, at least, if not her uncovered hair. According to some (grain of salt clutched between fingers), Michelle had reportedly been informed that the headscarf may be considered important for this occasion, and she still chose not to wear one. So there’s that, maybe. If that report is correct.

But even if it was intentional (and to keep it real, I’ll throw in the only available link currently available about the White House’s decision to stay out of this mess), should Michelle Obama’s wardrobe be bigger news than the public beheading that took place yesterday in Jeddah? (Sidestepping the US’ own headlines about the execution of an “intellectually disabled” man floating around the very next day.) Or the ongoing flogging of Raif Badawi? Or Manal al-Sharif’s courageous activism in support of women’s rights? And so many others…

No, it should not.

But perhaps this is (or can be) a roundabout way to raise awareness of those issues. Perhaps it is the only subtle but practical way that the Obamas (particularly Michelle) could plant that seed for discussion. Or, who knows, maybe she just thought that bright blue was an appropriate color for a funeral. Either way, it actually doesn’t matter. About that, our snarky liberal friends are spot on. I can appreciate well-informed snark, after all.

But, that people in the US are now talking more about women’s rights in Saudi Arabia—that it’s now on the radar of more Americans now than at any time in recent memory—does matter. It matters that the US has not only made possible the problems that have us talking but has also embraced an actively supportive role of the very regime that everyone now seems to be having a field day dissecting.

We could have (and should have) been talking about these problems long ago. But it took Michelle Obama’s outfit to get us here. So let’s just embrace that and if we’re happy she did it, we need to make it clear that we know why—and stay interested after the media moves on to the next sensation.

This is not about being anti-Muslim; it’s not even anti-Saudi. It’s pro-women’s rights, pro-human rights. The rights of Saudi Muslims. And it matters who bankrolls a regime that is very well-known for its various forms of oppression of its own people. (That bankroller is us, the US.) Oh, and just to throw this out there, Obama didn’t create this relationship with the Saudi government.

The consistent inability of mainstream US media outlets to parse real news from hysteria, fact from fiction, and rational logic from ignorant fear is truly shocking. The constant mixing of truth and falsehoods makes it very difficult to make informed decisions (even, and perhaps especially, at the personal level) and makes it nearly impossible for rational discourse to move forward in any direction.

The truth is that there are many Christians and Jews and atheists for that matter who live or have lived happy lives in Muslim-majority countries, as much as any of us are happy or would define being happy. After the Armenian Genocide, as just one example, many Armenians rebuilt their lives in places like Syria and Iraq… before those places became destabilized as a direct result of change in US policy in the region. Some eventually left for Europe and the US; many stayed and became permanent members of their communities.

The fact that there are over a billion Muslims spread across the globe is Islam’s true strength, but it is also its weakness in that it becomes ever more susceptible to local abuse by political extremists, and regional cultural differences can be wrongly interpreted by others as religious attributes. These misperceptions are actively fed by so-called news networks in the US (among other places), the directors of which benefit from widespread misinformation to promote the election of industry-bought individuals to positions of power to continue the vicious circle with equally industry-driven counterparts in “supplier” countries.

So, although it may not actually be a big deal (at all, really) that Michelle didn’t wear a headscarf, Saudi Twitter was apparently full of people who thought that it was (although they are reportedly only 37% of those who actually care), and that did kickstart a larger conversation stateside that’s been long overdue. And that’s not a bad thing.


*If doubtful about the partial overtones of the Fox News article about President Obama’s visit, feel free to check out a write-up from 2008 about Dubya’s first visit to the Saudi kingdom, an “oil-rich,” “key ally” in the “war on terror”—boy that brings back some memories. http://www.foxnews.com/story/2008/01/14/bush-visits-saudi-arabia-for-talks-with-king-abdullah/ The almost mystical visit was filled with warm embraces, magical amulets—I mean, medallions—and traditional double kisses. Oh, and we sold this key ally a ridiculous amount of arms. But that was a good thing. Then.

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