Did Michelle Obama make a statement with no head scarf in Saudi Arabia?

Saudi new King Salman (R), and US First Lady Michelle Obama (C) hold a receiving line for delegation members at the Erga Palace in the capital Riyadh on January 27, 2015.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

It's exceptionally rare to hear Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, praise anything done by someone associated with President Obama or his administration. But First Lady Michelle Obama got a very public thumbs up from Cruz on Twitter for not wearing a head scarf this week when she and Mr. Obama visited Saudi Arabia for a condolence visit following the death of King Abdullah.

As it turns out, Cruz might have saved his praise for something a little less run-of-the-mill. For a female American official to skip a head scarf is, as it turns out, not only insignificant -- it's the way they are expected to dress.

"I've never known an official American female to cover in Saudi Arabia," Jon Alterman, the director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told CBS News. "It feels like this is people discovering what has been true for quite a long time."

In fact, if anything, Alterman says there's pressure on American women traveling to Saudi Arabia on official business to let their hair be seen.

"Even if people don't mind covering, they would make it harder for women who do mind covering" he explained. "They feel it's important to maintain the right of other women not to cover."

First lady Laura Bush has tea with Saudi King Abdullah after arriving with President Bush at Riyadh-King Kahlid International Airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Friday, May 16, 2008.
AP Photo/Susan Walsh
President George H. W. Bush, left, and First Lady Barbara Bush wave to U.S Marines at the desert encampment during a Thanksgiving visit, Thursday, Nov. 22, 1990, Saudi Arabia.
AP Photo/Scott Applewhite

Indeed, photos reveal that she follows in a long tradition of bareheaded American first ladies and cabinet secretaries to set foot in the Gulf. Laura Bush went without one during a 2008 visit, although she was photographed trying on a head scarf that was a gift from breast cancer survivors when she traveled to Saudi Arabia to promote awareness of the disease in 2007. When Barbara Bush and former President George H.W. Bush visited American troops stationed there in 1990, she was photographed wearing a camouflage shirt -- but no head scarf.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton smiles during a joint press conference with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal following a US-Gulf Cooperation Council forum at the GCC secretariat in Riyadh on March 31, 2012.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal shake hands on May 16, 2008 after signing a memorandum of understanding in Riyadh.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Prince Turki Al-Faisal, the Saudi ambassador in the UK, speak during the second day of the 6th Jeddah Economic Forum 20 February 2005.

Hillary Clinton -- a former first lady and secretary of state -- didn't cover her hair when she visited Saudi Arabia. Her predecessors at State, Condoleezza Rice and Madeleine Albright, didn't cover their hair either.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks during her visit to the Saudi Arabian Chamber of Commerce on May 26, 2010, in the Red Sea port city of Jeddah.
Britain's Queen Elizabeth II reviews a guard of honour with the Emir of Bahrain, Sheikh Isa bin Sulman Al-Khalifa, the ruler of the Gulf State, after her arrival aboard the Royal Yacht Britannia on Feb.15, 1979 in Saudi Arabia.
AP Photo

While Saudi women are required to wear long-sleeved garments and cover their heads in public, foreign visitors are exempt from such rules. Top female U.S. officials are not the only ones who skip the head covering: German Chancellor Angela Merkel does as well. Queen Elizabeth II, by contrast, opted for a turban-style head covering during a 1979 visit.

The attention to Michelle Obama's bare head, Alterman said, is a function of social media outlets like Twitter that enable both Americans and Saudis to comment on the incident.

The Washington Post reported that more than 1,500 tweets were sent with an Arabic hashtag that roughly translates to "#Michelle_Obama_unveiled." Many were critical, including some that pointed out Michelle Obama chose to wear a head scarf during a visit to Indonesia last November.

But others in the U.S. used the hashtags #Michelle_Obama_Immodest and #Michelle_Obama_NotVeiled to show their support and praise the first lady for her actions.

Though she was not the first high-ranking American woman to skip the head scarf, she may as well have been. "For many people, she is the first because of seeing it in social media and seeing it shared by friends and commented on by friends," Scott Talan, a professor of public communication at American University, told CBS News. "People are not reading history books and going back to former first ladies...they're reacting to the visuals and the context of the controversy, ipso facto."

That doesn't mean, however, that it will have a lasting affect or be a rallying cry for change in Saudi Arabia - as is often the case with social media trends.

"The news cycle on this will be 24 to 36 hours at most unless the White House says something that is not expected," Talan said. "We will never run out of these social media controversies and debates and discussions. You don't know what they're going to be, you do know that they're going to pop up again and again and again."

  • Rebecca Kaplan

    Rebecca Kaplan is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.