Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Way To Go, Michelle!

I'd like to give credit today to First Lady Michelle Obama for the statement she made yesterday in Saudi Arabia.  While accompanying her husband on a visit to the Saudi royal family, Mrs Obama did not wear a scarf to cover her head.  In Saudi Arabia--along with many other Muslim countries--women are expected to remain "modest" in their dress.  That usually means showing no skin other than their face (and in some places, even that is not allowed).  There are no such "modesty" laws for men--who can wear short sleeves and short pants without repercussions.  So for the First Lady to go without a "naquib" was a statement that she is the equal of her husband--even if her hosts didn't think so.

Now Mrs Obama didn't go full-on "women's lib" in Saudi Arabia.  She still walked behind her husband--another cultural custom--and she did not offer to shake hands with the men in the reception--doing so only after they extended their hands first.  She also did not drive the President to the palace--as women are strictly prohibited from having a drivers license or operating a vehicle in Saudi Arabia (lest they become able to leave their husband's or father's control). 

Observing foreign cultural traditions is always a sensitive issue when traveling abroad.  In much of Asia and even in Hawaii, it is considered to be disrespectful to enter someone's home wearing your shoes.  I've learned the hard way that it's rude in some European countries to hand money directly to a cashier in a store--and that the cash should be placed in a tray atop the register or the counter to be picked up by the employee (who then puts your change in the tray for you to pick up).  But those practices are expected of both genders.  The Japanese don't say "Miss, you must remove your shoes--but Sir, you can keep yours on."  And those customs are not meant to keep one gender subjugated to the other.

Following initial reports that Saudi state television blurred out the First Lady's head when showing footage of the reception, we have found out that everyone living in the country was able to see Mrs Obama and her hair.  While it might be a small thing to us, perhaps it can further foster a belief in women across the Muslim world that they are the equal of their husbands and fathers and demand such treatment in their societies.  Because women could be a very powerful ally to the United States as we continue what could be an endless fight against Militant Islam.  Quite often, they prove to be the only adults in the room.  Like that time the First Lady looked disgusted and embarrassed while the President was taking selfies with European leaders at the funeral of Nelson Mandella.

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