How do people in Muslim countries prefer women to dress in public? This question was raised by a recent, much-discussed survey from the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, apparently as part of a comprehensive study on post-Arab Spring attitudes toward America and democratic values.
The survey was conducted in seven countries (Tunisia, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey), which aren’t all Arab or Muslim. Lebanon is not a Muslim country, and Turkey and Pakistan are not Arab countries.
The results, as outlined on the Pew Research Center’s FactTank, find that most people in the countries studied prefer that a woman completely cover her hair, but not necessarily her face. Only in Turkey and Lebanon do more than one in four think it is appropriate for a woman to not cover her head at all in public.
The survey’s underlying assumption is that practices concerning women’s face and hair cover are a measure of women’s liberation and modernity itself. The question of modesty in general wasn’t even considered. Not since Samson has there been such interest in Middle Eastern hair.
The study randomly selected about 3,000 people from each country regardless of its size. Each respondent was given a card depicting six styles of women’s headdress and asked to choose the woman most appropriately outfitted for a public place. As the study stated, no labels were included on the card. The depicted styles ranged from a fully-hooded burqa (woman No. 1) to the less conservative hijab (women No. 4 and No. 5). There was also the option of a woman wearing no head covering of any type.
I won’t get into the main findings, which were confusing, inconsistent and mostly about preferences, not about how many women actually wear these different styles.
The two questions in the study that concern us here are, first, what style of dress is appropriate for women in public? The concept of “appropriate” is loaded if we don’t measure it against any norm — social, religious or personal. The West just can’t get its head around the fact that a Muslim woman’s attire choice can just be a personal one and not a cultural or religious one.
The second key question was: Should women be able to choose their own clothing?
I’m a little leery of this type of dichotomy in research questions, where you are given only two options — yes or no — especially when the question concerns a complicated social value, such as Muslim women’s freedom to chose their own dress. The study surveyed both male and female, but didn’t break the answers down by gender.
In a nutshell, the study found that only 14 percent in Egypt think women should choose their own dress, as opposed to 47 percent in Saudi Arabia.
That means that 86 percent of respondents in Egypt, where women relatively have more latitude in their fashion selections, want someone else to influence their choices, while in Saudi Arabia, where women are forced to consult with only one fashion designer, the Islamic dress code, 47 percent think they could make a better choice themselves.
This kind of study doesn’t really measure Muslim attitudes toward women’s clothing so much as it reflects the Western attitude toward Muslim women and Muslim people.
Just imagine, for the sake of argument, someone asking the same two questions in America, where the fashion industry spends as much money trying to control women’s bodies as the military spent invading Iraq.
The fashion industry tells American women how to dress — not necessarily how much hair they should cover in public, but how much skin they should reveal.
And how would Minnesota women answer the question: “What style of dress is appropriate for women in public?” Never mind how men would answer. In the recent frigid weather, where some parts of the state reached 40 below, I’d bet lots of women wouldn’t mind style No. 1 that much.
Ahmed Tharwat is a public speaker and hosts the Arab-American show “Belahdan” at 10:30 p.m. Mondays on Twin Cities Public Television. He blogs at www.ahmediatv.com.