First Ladies, Headscarves & History: A Photo Gallery

Following a tradition of American First Ladies and other official women Michelle Obama did not wear a head scarf, stands behind her husband the President of the United States as he greets Saudi officials who largely refrained from shaking her hand.

Following a tradition of American First Ladies and other official women Michelle Obama did not wear a head scarf, stands behind her husband the President of the United States as he greets Saudi officials who largely refrained from shaking her hand.

Simply put, it is much ado about nothing, which makes it a lot about something else.

With all the global media attention focused on the fact that Michelle Obama did not wear a traditional Muslim head scarf to the funeral of Saudi King earlier this week, the simple fact remained that, while Saudi law requires the women of their nation to keep their heads covered, it exempts foreign women from doing so.

And, even if she had worn a head scarf many of the Saudi officials who shook the President’s hand would still not have shaken her hand.

But the ridiculous amount of attention given to it by the global media does make a greater point about something else. Otherwise intelligent journalists, media commentators, bloggers, politicos and the generally opinionated citizenry yet again willfully ignored the facts of recent events, otherwise known by that word too often despised – “history.”

It is not just American women who hold official positions who have not worn head scarves in Saudi Arabia, like Secretary of State Condeleeza Rice and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in order to have their status and rank recognized in nations where women are not traditionally treated equally.

It is also First Ladies, who hold symbolic positions, who never have.

Most First Ladies have followed recommended State Department protocol in wearing head coverings in other situations involving foreign countries where religion dictates government regulation.

Others have chosen to do so simply as a sign of traditional respect for a culture when meeting different religious leaders of, or visiting religious places in foreign countries – even when it was not expected.

Ironically, the one First Lady always perceived as being especially culturally sensitive and world-wise may have been the only one not to do so – but then again, it was at one of the most famous mosques that happens to be a popular tourist spot where a head scarf is not required.

And one First Lady still perceived as being traditional, who also happened to be the first to make an official visit to Saudi Arabia with her husband during his presidency, may well have set the pattern of her successors who also visited that country – by going around that nation not wearing a headscarf.

This week’s focus was on an American First Lady in a nation dictated by Muslim law, Saudi Arabia, but the same pattern of adhering to the custom of women covering their head has been followed by presidential spouses when they’ve had audiences with the leader of the world’s largest Christian faith, that of the Roman Catholic. All except one First Lady has belonged to a Protestant faith, yet all covered their heads when they called on the Pope in Vatican City.

When Michelle Obama joined the President on a visit to Istiqlal Mosque in Jakarta on Wednesday and Michelle donned a headscarf and put stockings on her feet, as custom dictated.

When Michelle Obama joined the President on a visit to Istiqlal Mosque in Jakarta on Wednesday and Michelle donned a headscarf and put stockings on her feet, as custom dictated.

Laura Bush in Saudi Arabia, 2007, with no head covering.

Laura Bush in Saudi Arabia, 2007, with no head covering.

As First Lady, Hillary Clinton and her daughter wore head scarves when visiting Yasser Arafat.

As First Lady, Hillary Clinton and her daughter wore head scarves when visiting Yasser Arafat.

As Secretary of State, however, the former First Lady did not wear a head scarf during an official visit to Saudi Arabia.

As Secretary of State, however, the former First Lady did not wear a head scarf during an official visit to Saudi Arabia.

Visiting the Pope in Vatican City, Michelle Obama wore a veil.

Visiting the Pope in Vatican City, Michelle Obama wore a veil.

Joining her husband on a visit to Pope John Paul II, Nancy Reagan wore the traditional black veil.

Joining her husband on a visit to Pope John Paul II, Nancy Reagan wore the traditional black veil.

Barbara Bush did remain behind her husband, according to Saudi tradition, but did not wear a head scarf.

Barbara Bush did remain behind her husband and wore a shoulder shawl, according to Saudi tradition, but did not wear a head scarf.

Rosalynn Carter wore no head scarf or shawl, but walked behind the men in accordance with Saudi tradition.

Rosalynn Carter wore no head scarf or shawl, but walked behind the men in accordance with Saudi tradition.

Although it was on American soil, when First Lady Rosalynn Carter welcomed Pope John Paul II to the United States, she chose to cover her head in a black hat.

Although it was on American soil, when First Lady Rosalynn Carter welcomed Pope John Paul II to the United States, she chose to cover her head in a black hat.

When First Lady Hillary Clinton welcomed Pope John Paul II to the United States, however, she chose not to wear any head covering, There was no tradition of doing so - Mrs. Carter had simply wished to personally do so.

When First Lady Hillary Clinton welcomed Pope John Paul II to the United States, however, she chose not to wear any head covering, There was no tradition of doing so – Mrs. Carter had simply wished to personally do so.

In the summer of '75, First Lady Betty Ford continued to wear her black veil in Vatican City, even after her audience with Pope Paul was over.

In the summer of ’75, First Lady Betty Ford continued to wear her black veil in Vatican City, even after her audience with Pope Paul was over. (Corbis)

Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt joined several girls in Pakistan in kneeling - but dressed as she always did.

Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt joined several girls in Pakistan in kneeling – but dressed as she always did.

On her March 11, 1962 audience with Pope John, the only Catholic First Lady (and also the first incumbent to meet with a Pope) not only wore a veil but modestly covered her entire body in a full-length dress,

On her March 11, 1962 audience with Pope John, the only Catholic First Lady (and also the first incumbent to meet with a Pope) not only wore a veil but modestly covered her entire body in a full-length dress,

During her June 1974, trip to Saudi Arabia ---the first First Lady to visit that nation, Pat Nixon never wore a head scarf anywhere, as shown here in  Jiddah shopping for gold jewelry in a Saudi market. Her appearance during this visit may well have set the standard continued by all her successors.

During her June 1974, trip to Saudi Arabia —the first First Lady to visit that nation, Pat Nixon never wore a head scarf anywhere, as shown here in Jiddah shopping for gold jewelry in a Saudi market. Her appearance during this visit may well have set the standard continued by all her successors.

When she met with Shei Suleiman during a 1952 visit to the Middle East, former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt wore a black suit and black hat - but then again, she almost invariably did so.

When she met with Shei Suleiman during a 1952 visit to the Middle East, former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt wore a black suit and black hat – but then again, she almost invariably did so.

During her visit to the famous Blue Mosque in Turkey, in 1963, Jacqueline Kennedy chose not to wear a head scarf or a shoulder shawl, (the latter often being a tradition), but she did remove her shoes.

During her visit to the famous Blue Mosque in Turkey, in 1963, Jacqueline Kennedy chose not to wear a head scarf or a shoulder shawl, (the latter often being a tradition), but she did remove her shoes. And, as always, wore white gloves.

Of course, on seemingly every other opportunity she was outdoors, Jacqueline Kennedy so relished wearing head scarves that it became part of her trademark appearance.

Of course, on seemingly every other opportunity she was outdoors, Jacqueline Kennedy so relished wearing head scarves that it became part of her trademark appearance.

 

 

 

 


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5 replies »

  1. Carl, if only everyone had your insight on these situations how wonderful our country would be. I don’t recall our great nation ever being as polarized as it is now. I venture to say it has more to do with partisan politics than any particular person(s). As always, thanks for sharing!!

    • Very nice of you to say, thank you Bill. I might elaborate on your thought and say I believe the reason behind the more sharply divisive position politics is that it’s extremely profitable for all those who don’t actually toil over legislation and policy but attack those who do. Since civilization began, more property or money is often the root cause of conflict.

  2. I recently ran across this passage from Snow, a novel by Nobel Prize-winning Turkish author Orhan Pamuk:

    “We’re poor and insignificant . . . . “Our wretched lives have no place in human history. One day all of us living . . . . will be dead and gone. No one will remember us; no one will care what happened to us. We’ll spend the rest of our days arguing about what sort of scarf women should wrap around their heads, and no one will care in the slightest because we’re eaten up by our own petty, idiotic quarrels.”

    • David – that is a remarkable and true quote. The Grand Distractions. (That’s why I do like Dogs so much – they just get on with what matters.) If I use that quote someday, somewhere I will reference Orhan Pamuk – and credit you as “agent.” Thank you.

  3. The item passage by Orhan Pamuk was quoted in a recent Stratfor article, “Mind the Gap”, by Dr. Jay Ogilvy: http://www.stratfor.com/weekly/mind-gap#axzz3QL8l4Z4s. All credit is his.

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