RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (CBS News/CBSDC/AP) — For first lady Michelle Obama, just a few hours in Saudi Arabia were enough to illustrate the stark limitations under which Saudi women live.
Joining President Barack Obama for a condolence visit after the death of the King Abdullah, Mrs. Obama stepped off of Air Force One wearing long pants and a long, brightly colored jacket – but no headscarf.
Under the kingdom’s strict dress code for women, Saudi females are required to wear a headscarf and loose, black robes in public. Most women in Saudi Arabia cover their hair and face with a veil known as the niqab. But covering one’s head is not required for foreigners, and some Western women choose to forego the headscarf while in Saudi Arabia.
As a delegation of dozens of Saudi officials – all men – greeted the Obamas in Riyadh, some shook hands with Mrs. Obama. Others avoided a handshake but acknowledged the first lady with a nod as they passed by.
Saudi Arabia imposes many restrictions on women on the strict interpretation of Islamic Shariah law known as Wahhabism. Genders are strictly segregated. Women are banned from driving, although there have been campaigns in recent years to lift that ban. Guardianship laws also require women to get permission from a male relative to travel, get married, enroll in higher education or undergo certain surgical procedures.
As CBS News correspondent Holly Williams reported last month, the malls in Riyadh may sell mini skirts and sexy lingerie, but the female shoppers nearly all wear floor-length black gowns known as abayas, and niqabs that cover everything except their eyes. And – as is the norm in Saudi Arabia – the fast food restaurants are segregated. Men sit at the front; women and families sit in a partitioned area at the back, shielded from public view.
Saudi women need a male relative’s permission to work and travel overseas. For visitors from the West, it can be tough to digest.
Williams reports that the religious police, employed by the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, are tasked with implementing Islamic Sharia Law in Saudi Arabia. They can punish unrelated men and women for “intermingling” in public areas, and they enforce the dress code that is imposed on Saudi women.
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