May isn't the first female leader to bare her head in Saudi Arabia

British Prime Minister Theresa May is escorted by Saudi Finance Minister Mohammed al-Jadaan at the Saudi Stock Exchange Riyadh on Tuesday.

Story highlights

  • Other Western female leaders have visited Saudi Arabia without covering their heads
  • No law requires foreign women to wear a hijab

(CNN)British Prime Minister Theresa May drew the world's attention on Tuesday when she decided not to cover her hair during an official visit to Saudi Arabia.

May refused to follow a strict religious and cultural tradition. Women in Saudi Arabia, where Islam is the state religion, are expected to cover their heads.
Saudi women follow a conservative dress code in public. They wear a full-body garment called an abaya and cover their heads and hair with a hijab or a niqab, which has a slit for the eyes.
May is visiting Saudi Arabia as part of a tour of the Gulf Arab countries to promote post-Brexit trade deals. On Tuesday, she landed in Riyadh, where she met the crown prince.
The only other female British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, met with King Fahd of Saudi Arabia in 1985. She wore a long dress and a hat during her visit.
May followed the practice of several other foreign female leaders who have visited Saudi Arabia in recent years who also did not cover their heads, including:

Michelle Obama in 2015

The Obamas visit King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud.
Former first lady Michelle Obama and former President Barack Obama visited Saudi Arabia to pay respects to the late King Abdullah and held meetings with the current leader, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud. Michelle Obama was criticized because she shook hands with the Saudi leaders. Islamic law generally forbids men from touching women to whom they are not related. Obama also did not cover her head.

Hillary Clinton in 2012

Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meets with Saudi officials.
During her time as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton had an uncovered head in meetings with Saudi and Gulf Arab foreign ministers to discuss several issues including Iran, oil policy and the Afghanistan war. Clinton's predecessor, Bush administration Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, also did not cover her head in Saudi Arabia.

Laura Bush in 2007

US first lady Laura Bush meets with Prince Faisal bin Abdulla in 2007.
Then-first lady Laura Bush's trip to Saudi Arabia in 2007 was focused on raising awareness about breast cancer affecting Saudi women. Bush didn't wear a hijab during her arrival but later tried on a headscarf given to her by a Saudi doctor during a meeting with cancer survivors.

Angela Merkel in 2010

German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks with Abdullah Alireza, minister of commerce and industry of Saudi Arabia.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel did not cover her head and hair during a multicity visit to the area. She attended the German-Saudi Arabian economic conference hosted in Saudi Arabia in 2010, and visited several other Gulf countries as part of an initiative to improve economic and political ties.