The Corner

Here’s How the Muslim World Believes Women Should Dress

A survey conducted in seven Muslim-majority countries (Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Pakistan) finds that a median of 10 percent of the respondents prefer women to wear either a niqab or burqa when in public. The specific country figures range enormously, from 74 percent approval of these two garments in Saudi Arabia and 35 percent in Pakistan to 3 percent in Lebanon and Tunisia and just 2 percent in Turkey.

Woman No. 4, whose hair and ears are covered by an amira, was overall far and away deemed the most appropriately dressed for appearing in public, with 44 percent of the vote, followed in a distant second place by the lighter hijab of woman No. 5 at 12 percent. No head covering at all found a measly 4 percent support.

Respondents were shown six pictures of women in different styles of head dress and asked “Which one of these women is dressed most appropriately for public places?” The data is from a study conducted by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research and published on December 15, 2013. Jacob Poushter of the Pew Global Attitudes Project visually recast the figures in the form shown here. The sample sizes per country range between 2,000 and 3,500, and the surveys were conducted between January 2011 and June 2013.

For several reasons, this 10 percent figure is very approximate: Views vary greatly by country, so a different selection of countries would have produced half or twice this number. And the size of the countries vary greatly too, with Pakistan’s about 40 times larger than Lebanon’s. Still, 10 percent offers an order-of-magnitude estimate of an otherwise elusive phenomenon.

Using a median rather than a mean makes no difference in the case of the combined support for niqabs and burqas; were means used, that would also be 10 percent. In the case of uncovered women, however, it would make a substantial difference, bringing support up from 4 percent to 15.5, or nearly four times as much.

The Michigan study concludes from 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. Saudi Arabia, which is economically more developed, is most conservative in terms of women’s style of dress. Rather, it reflects a country’s orientations toward liberal values as well as the level of freedom people enjoy. In Lebanon, Tunisia, and Turkey, where people tend to be less conservative than the other four countries, the preferable style for women also tend to be much less conservative than the other four countries.

I concur, except that Saudi Arabia cannot be considered modern, only rich. To put it simply, what counts when it comes to women’s attire in public is values, not wealth. Phrased differently, Westernization is an inextrictable part of modernization, whether that means democracy, Beethoven, or unveiled women.

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