Michelle Obama headscarf 'scandal' is bogus

Story highlights

  • Frida Ghitis: Michelle Obama's not wearing headscarf in Saudi Arabia is a faux-scandal
  • Kerfuffle really shows U.S. ethical dilemma in dealing with a repressive regime, she says

Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review. A former CNN producer and correspondent, she is the author of "The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television." Follow her on Twitter @FridaGhitis. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)It was a very telling mini-scandal, the faux-fury over Michelle Obama's short visit to Saudi Arabia.

First there was the phony claim that Saudi television had blurred the first lady's image in its transmission of the Obamas' condolence call on the kingdom. Then came the kerfuffle over her outfit. Was she insensitive in not wearing a headscarf? Should she had worn black? Then, finally, we heard the questions about whether she committed an etiquette no-no when she shook hands with the new Saudi monarch, King Salman.
None of these accusations and claims amount to much on their own. But there is a reason, a very good reason, why social media turned its attention sharply toward Michelle Obama in Saudi Arabia.
    The presence of an American first lady on Saudi territory embodies the intense unease that surrounds U.S. and Western relations with the Saudi kingdom. Saudi Arabians can be the most hospitable people in the world, and they are friends of the United States. But all is not well with the relationship.
    The spectacle of American and European leaders lavishly praising and courting the Saudi royals is a most unsettling one. U.S.-Saudi relations present a profound moral dilemma for America. They constitute a classic example of the tough choices a nation faces when its ideals clash with its interests.
    The United States wants to have good relations with Saudi Arabia, not only because it has a lot of oil, but because it is one of the most powerful countries in the Middle East and the two countries share many strategic goals. The U.S. needs Saudi Arabia -- and Saudi Arabia needs the U.S.
    At the same time, many of Saudi Arabia's practices stand in direct violation of America's -- and the world's -- most cherished values.
    Values or interests: that is the question.
    Let's now put an end to the discussion about Michelle Obama. She did absolutely nothing wrong. In fact, the claim that her attire and performance created a firestorm in Saudi Arabia is plainly false. By some counts, there were some 1,500 tweets with the Arabic hashtag #ميشيل_أوباما_سفور, which means roughly #Michelle_Obama_Unveiled. That is hardly a Twitterstorm, considering that Saudi Arabia has more than 5 million Twitter users.
    Second, the first lady followed protocol. Saudi law does not require foreign visitors to wear a hijab, the Muslim headscarf. This was no protocol breach, and it was also not an unusually courageous move on her part. Countless prominent women have appeared in public meeting Saudi royals without wearing headscarves. We've seen Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush, Angela Merkel, among others, visit the kingdom in Western attire.
    Finally, that handshake: The King would not have shaken hands with Michelle Obama if he had not wanted to do so. In fact, we saw an endless parade of dignitaries shake the President's hand and walk right past the first lady, bluntly, rudely, ignoring her. That is a breach of etiquette. But it was not committed by the first lady or by King Salman.
    So it looks like this is the scandal that wasn't. A non-tempest, if you will. But there was a teapot.
    The story made headlines because people in the United States and in the West feel a scandal in the relationship, because much of what goes on in Saudi Arabia is an affront not just to Western principles but to human rights conventions endorsed by most of the world. And some of the most egregious violations of those values are perpetrated against Saudi women.
    For decades Saudi women have protested the indefensible rule that bans them from driving, making Saudi Arabia the only country in the world with such a ban.
    A Saudi woman is required to have a male relative as a "guardian" who must approve her travel and other key decisions in her life.
    Saudi women are required to wear the abaya, a head-to-toe cover, and many wear a niqab, which covers the face. The fact that they dress differently is not in itself a rights violation, but the fact that they have no choice in the matter is.
    Saudi women, who are intelligent, strong, competent, mature, capable of making decision for themselves as well as any Saudi man, are treated in many cases as if they were children.
    But it's not just women whose rights, as defined by international standards, are violated. There is no freedom of religion in the kingdom, where everyone by law must be a Muslim and the public practice of other religions is forbidden. And freedom of expression is severely restricted.
    Blogger Raif Badawi, who sought to promote a discussion about social and religious issues on his website, was sentenced to 1,000 lashes for "insulting Islam," and showing disobedience. He suffered the first 50 lashes a few weeks ago, and the international outcry, combined with the toll it took on his health, led the government to put the rest of the sentence on hold.
    Then there are the public beheadings after questionable legal proceedings. Already 16 people have been beheaded this year. There were 87 such punishments last year.
    So what is the United States to do? Cooperation with Saudi Arabia is crucial in restoring stability to the Middle East, in fighting ISIS and other terrorist groups, in keeping oil prices low to pressure Iran and Russia, and in a number of other high-priority items on the world's agenda.
    The answer is a frustrating balance of realism and idealism. The answer requires acknowledging -- in private and in public, as Hillary Clinton has done -- that we find some of their practices unacceptable, along with an open and unapologetic defense of the principles of equality and basic freedoms.
    The United States cannot sever relations with Riyadh, and the truth is that it cannot force the Saudis to change, but keeping quiet on the matter is an unseemly capitulation.
    A condolence call was not the time for public criticism, and Michelle Obama's presence in Riyadh was a meaningful sign that the United States believes women belong in the public sphere. The scandal was a sign of the frustration people feel with this ethical dilemma.