Why Are People Making a Big Deal Over Michelle Obama Shaking Hands with the Saudi King?

January 28, 2015 Updated: June 24, 2015

President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama stopped in Saudi Arabia to pay respects to the late King Abdullah, but the first lady may have inadvertently courted controversy when she didn’t cover her head and shook hands with the new king.

In many countries, Islamic law essentially forbids women to touch or shake hands with members of the opposite sex when they’re not closely related. It’s normal for men to shake hands regardless of relation.

So, why is this the case?

Obama shook hands with King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud on Tuesday, as CNN reported. The White House notes that many female U.S. representatives have shaken hands with a king.

“The Saudi Arabian government follows a very literal interpretation of Islam called Wahhabism, which is a very literal understanding of Islam. And, the government has used this interpretation in its efforts to oppress women,” Dr. Fait Muedini, faculty at the Department of International Studies of Butler University and a Desmond Tutu fellow, told Epoch Times.

In the conservative Sunni kingdom, officials impose strict restrictions on women, which extend to voting, travel, and working, Dr. Muedini noted. Genders are strictly segregated and women are banned from driving–although many flout the restrictions. The country also requires women to get permission from a male relative to travel around, get married, enroll in higher education, or take part in certain medical operations.

The restrictions on what women can wear or do, does not always extend to foreigners, Dr. Muedini said.

“Many non-Muslim women have worn the hijab out of respect for the faith when going into Muslim places of worship, or sometimes when meeting with government leaders. Saudi Arabia has a law that women must wear certain clothing, but non-Muslim women visiting are exempt,” he said.

Michelle Obama didn’t break any rules, says Maryanne Parker, who is the founder of international business, social, and youth etiquette company Manor of Manners. She said she works with people from Saudi Arabia.

“She didn’t break any rules. She did [dress] respectfully, but she still didn’t want to compromise her religion, beliefs, and style. It is nothing legally wrong for not covering for non-Muslim women,” Parker told Epoch Times.

Over the years, human rights organizations, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have criticized Saudi Arabia’s policies towards women. In a report following Abdullah’s death last week, Human Rights Watch said despite his “rhetorical support in 2005 for the idea of women driving, at his death they remain forbidden from getting behind the wheel, and authorities arrested women who dared challenge the driving ban.”

The outrage over King Salman’s decision to shake hands with the first lady also may have been overblown.

“Some within literal interpretations of Islam follow that men and women who are not married should not shake hands, for example. Again, this is a very small minority, but nonetheless exists in certain contexts such as Saudi Arabia and their strict interpretation of Islam,” he said.

There were photos and messages circulating on Twitter and Facebook suggesting Saudi media blurred out the first lady during the official meeting with the king. However, the country’s state-run media said the reports and photos were erroneous, suggesting the whole thing was a hoax.

The Saudi Embassy criticized media outlets, including Bloomberg News, for running the “blurred” Obama image. Bloomberg media, it said, “should check facts, not Facebook” and added it’s “too bad Bloomberg did not have someone monitor Saudi TV as other news outlets did.”