In Saudi Arabia, Michelle Obama raises eyebrows with a handshake and some hair

The first lady shocked some in the ultra-conservative country by appearing without a headscarf in front of royalty and shaking the king's hand.

January 28, 2015 17:23
1 minute read.
Obama and Saudi Royal family

US President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama meet members of the Saudi royal family, government officials and guests. (photo credit: REUTERS)

US first lady Michelle Obama was put under the spotlight Tuesday during a diplomatic stopover in Saudi Arabia with husband President Barack Obama to pay their respects to the royal family following King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz's death.

In the Saudi kingdom, strict modesty laws are imposed on all female citizens regardless of beliefs. Women are required to wear a headscarf in public, among other modesty laws, and men are forbidden to touch women under Islamic law and especially not  with heads of state in public.

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Despite the country's strict modesty standards, Obama met the recently-instated King Salman without a headscarf and shook his hand.

Though foreign women visiting Saudi Arabia are not required to wear a headscarf, the decision to go with hair uncovered drew criticism. Since the visit, there have been thousands of tweets using the hashtag #Michelle_Obama_unveiled, written in Arabic as #ميشيل_أوباما_سفور , expressing both support and criticism of Obama.

One twitter user shared pictures from a 2010 trip to Indonesia showing the first lady with a headscarf. However, the post failed to mention that the pictures were taken at a mosque, where women are always required to cover their hair.

As far as the controversial handshake, men are usually forbidden to touch women under Islam, though some point out that an exception may have been made for the sake of hospitality.

The president and first lady were in the country along with a delegation of American dignitaries such as former secretaries of state Hillary Clinton and Madeline Albright. During the visit, president Obama met with King Salman in hopes to bolster a relationship a security relationship as terror groups threaten the volatile Gulf Arab region. The visit comes among criticism of the country's severe human rights violations.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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