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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Presentation of news or projection of a narrative: Hard to tell in the case of Michelle Obama and the headscarf

Recent media coverage that claimed the First Lady caused uproar in Saudi Arabia is being called misleading and racist by several media organizations.

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama took a trip to Saudi Arabia for the mourning ceremony of Saudi King Abdullah, and the First Lady was seen at the ceremony without a headscarf on, which all Saudi women are required to wear in public.

Reporters across the media landscape claimed that the First Lady received a heavy amount of backlash from the people of Saudi Arabia, and that it was seen as a political stand for the women of Saudi Arabia. Conservative Senator Ted Cruz even shared his own thoughts on the matter, tweeting out, “Kudos to @FLOTUS for standing up for women & refusing to wear Sharia-mandated head-scarf in Saudi Arabia. Nicely Done.”

Several news organizations were quick to point out that Michelle Obama was not making a stand against Saudi society, but was just following what many other women had done before her. Some writers turned away from hard news to in turn criticize those who falsely called the event a controversy, stating that the media was perpetuating stereotypes of Saudi Arabians.

Vox Media reporter Max Fisher reported that the First Lady was simply following standard protocol, and that the two first ladies before her, Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush, had also not worn headscarves when making visits to the country, and neither did former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. He took it a step further, however, stating, “much of the American media has instead only perpetuated the different but very real American problem Islamophobic and anti-Arab stereotyping.”

It was also reported by some major news organizations, including the Washington Post, that the First Lady caused a backlash on twitter. In the Washington Post, it was reported that 1,500 tweets were sent out during the visit by the President and First Lady. However, Wall Street Journal writer Ahmed Al Omran tweeted, “Saudi has millions of Twitter users. When a few hundred of them talk about something, that’s not a backlash. It’s a flicker.”

In addition to just following protocol, some news sources offered up additional reasons as to why they felt the First Lady may not have been wearing a headscarf. The Atlanta Black Star suggested that the First Lady avoided the headscarf so that she would be, “steering clear of any additional fuss from extreme right wing politicians’ obsession with stigmatizing the first family as Muslims.”  President Obama has long been falsely labeled as a Muslim since 2006.

Vox took it a step further, stating that, “American media completely freaked out, got a number of basic facts wildly wrong, and did so all in a way that insulted that country and its citizens by perpetuating racist stereotypes.” Vox later reiterated their view, stating that the coverage of the First Lady in Saudi Arabia, “has instead only perpetuated the different but very real American problem of Islamophobic and anti-Arab stereotyping.

Read the full Vox article here.

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