That Dratted Headscarf!

The hoopla over Michelle Obama’s lack of headscarf during her recent visit to Saudi Arabia has had me sighing yet again. There is hardly a day when I don’t read the newspapers and sigh, shaking my head at this or that. But that’s another story for another day.

For the avoidance of doubt, there is no law or protocol that says non-Muslim female visitors to Saudi Arabia need to wear a headscarf. They should dress modestly out of respect for the customs of the country, so no to short skirts, plunging necklines and sleeveless tops. Most non-Muslim expats go about their daily business in the Kingdom wearing the abaya (a cloak of sorts) but with their heads uncovered. And, shock horror, the expats are not always the only ones without a headscarf. Sometimes it is the Saudi girls themselves going about with heads uncovered and I count myself one of them.

Of course it’s all to do with context. The culture differs from city to city and from neighbourhood to neighbourhood. Riyadh and the central region are generally the most conservative parts of the country. Jeddah, in the west of the country, takes a more relaxed approach. You would probably make sure you were all covered up if you were going to government offices or going through immigration at the airport. On the other hand, you might feel comfortable enough without the headscarf going to the supermarket, the shopping malls or simply travelling by car to visit a friend.

For me, the decisive moment came rather symbolically on the first day of the year 2000. I had recently moved back to Saudi Arabia after the death of my parents and had decided to start a business there. I was going about every day wearing the customary uniform of abaya and headscarf but I started to notice a lot of local women putting their headscarf on very loosely and sometimes letting it fall back altogether. The dreaded muttawa (a kind of religious police) were also notable by their absence. I remember being terrified of them in my younger days when my family lived in Riyadh. They were at the height of their powers in the 1980s, harassing women on a daily basis but it seems this power has now been severely curtailed and women are no longer quite so fearful of encountering them when they go out in public. It is very easy for journalists in the west to portray Saudi Arabia as a conservative country clinging to its old customs but things do change there.

Anyway, let’s go back to 1st January 2000. I had stayed up all the previous evening thinking about this glorious new century we were entering and how I would mark its beginning. I started thinking about the dratted headscarf and questioning why I wore it. It was certainly not from religious conviction – it should be obvious by now that I am one of the non-hijab wearing types of Muslims. I concluded there was no compulsion to wear a headscarf, no muttawa to frighten me and that I was just wearing it out of habit. Time to stop this hypocrisy, I thought, and be true to myself. The next morning the headscarf was cast aside, all was fine and I felt happy and free. My sister joined me in Jeddah some time later and she took her cue from me. We went about to shops, restaurants or walks by the seaside with heads uncovered and the country did not die of shock.

Thus you can imagine my loud sighs of annoyance at the twitter storm surrounding the first lady’s omission of the headscarf. There are a lot of Muslims who are in “outrage mode” these days, ready to take offence at the slightest thing. Have they been reading the Daily Mail by any chance? They need to calm down and the western world should not pander to them – there really was no need for a White House official to make a statement about this matter and to defend Michelle Obama’s wardrobe. Ignore the silly twits, I say. Don’t give them the oxygen of publicity.