By Ahmed Tharwat
Muslim women living in the West are attacked in the streets, supermarkets, buses, and football games, just for wearing the hijab. In France, Muslim students are denied education for wearing hijabs, last week a 15-year-old Muslim student was banned from school for wearing a long black skirt, “seen as openly religious for the secular France”, reported UK newspaper The Guardian. A Muslim woman was shown in a picture wearing a flag wrapped over her head, it was deemed as blasphemy.
The reactions on Social media were fraught with anger and violence. The Twitter Account @BannedIslam posted the picture of the young Muslim woman with this question: What would you do if you saw this? The reactions show how fanatical Americans think of Muslim women’s dress and sexuality.
One comment made by ‘Onenine’ suggested to people that they ‘burn the bitch’, and another person offered a different strategy by strangling the girl with the scarf. Hijab and Burqa aren’t rejected in the West for their religious inclinations, but of their anti-commercialism inclinations: they aren’t falling victim to the West’s commercial icons such as Liz Claiborne, Calvin Klein, and Victoria’s Secret.
A Western woman spends 287 days refilling her wardrobe, recounted The Telegraph: by choosing outfits for work, nights out, dinner parties, holidays, for the gym, and other activities. The Economist reported that an American woman spends an average of $3,400 to fill her wardrobe each year. The colonial West has been interested in the Muslim woman’s dress for a long a time. Orientalist artists and painters had depicted Muslim women as submissive sexual objects, devoid of any activities, simply sitting waiting for their men.
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, as part of a comprehensive study on post-Arab Spring attitudes towards 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 solely Muslim country, and Turkey and Pakistan are not Arab countries.
The results, as outlined on the Pew Research Center’s FactTank, found that most people in the countries studied prefer that a woman completely covers her hair, but not necessarily her face. Only in Turkey and Lebanon, more than one in four thought it is appropriate for a woman not to cover her head at all in public. The study’s underlying assumption was that practices concerning women’s faces and hair coverings were 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 headdresses, 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 are: 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 choice of attire 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 wary 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 choose 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% in Egypt think women should choose their own dress, as opposed to 47% in Saudi Arabia. That means that 86% of respondents in Egypt, where women have relatively more latitude in their fashion selections, want someone else to influence their choices. In Saudi Arabia, where women are forced to consult with only one fashion designer, the Islamic dress code, 47% think they could make a better choice for themselves.
This kind of study doesn’t really measure Muslim’s attitudes towards women’s clothing, so much as it reflects the West’s 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. It tells American women how to dress – not necessarily how much hair they should cover in public, but how much skin they should reveal.
How would Americans answer this question: “What style of dress is appropriate for women in public?” Never mind how men would answer. In winter, frigid weather, which in some states reaches 40° below, I’d bet lots of women wouldn’t mind the fully-hooded burqa style that much.
Ahmed Tharwat is a public speaker and hosts the Arab-American show “Belahdan”.