Conceptually a woman’s expression of modesty and religious faith, the Muslim headscarf has become symbolic of an entire society’s identity or in the case of the West, a way to distinguish Muslims from broader society.
It is also common to use the hijab as a measure of how ‘modern’ or ‘liberal’ a person or country is (especially in the West), which is what tends to happen when articles with the following headlines make their rounds on social media.
“How people in Muslim countries prefer women to dress in public”
And this is where the problem arises.
Pew Research Center published part of a University of Michigan study that looked at how people in seven Muslim-majority countries preferred women to dress in the public space. Using visual references like the picture above, each respondent was asked to choose the woman most appropriately dressed for public. The graph shows the responses of the surveyed individuals.
Based on this graph alone, Turkey and Lebanon are the only two countries where more than a quarter of those questioned think it is appropriate for a woman to not cover her head at all in public.
Firstly, the real study, conducted by the University’s Institute for Social Research, focused on public attitudes in Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring. The data from other Muslim countries in the Middle East was used to draw comparisons.
What people may not understand off the bat is that asking a person in any one of the seven countries what they think is appropriate for a woman to wear in public is not the same as what they want them to wear or what they personally feel women should wear based on some moral scale.
Women living in Muslims countries, such as Pakistan, often wear #5-type attire in conservative localities to feel more comfortable, even though they will find it completely appropriate to not cover their head at all in most other places.
The point is that the answers do not reveal how much freedom women enjoy in their respective countries.
The study itself gives the disclaimer that “based on these findings, it would be hard to connect women’s style of dress on the aggregate level to a country’s level of development and modernity.”
However, as expected, people discuss inadequate data such as this and draw broad conclusions about whole societies without understanding the depth of the actual study or understanding what the findings mean.
Within the first twelve hours of Pew publishing the study’s findings on its site, the article made the front page of Reddit and garnered over 1700 comments.
Thankfully, many Redditorrs questioned the conclusions being drawn from the study. One Danish commentator wrote:-
“It could be that the phrasing of the question makes people think conservatively? "Choose the woman most appropriately outfitted for a public place". I mean, if I was asked, I wouldn't point to the lady wearing uggs and sweatpants - I would point to someone dressed more conservatively, and I'm from Denmark, where "traditional values" are optional.
I think the second graph is just as important: "Should Women be able to choose their own clothing. 22% from Pakistan say Yes”