Jan 23, 2014

Muslim Women's Dress: The New Sensationalism

By Saadia Faruqi
Source: Religion Dispatches

Muslim + women + dress. Just type the three words into Google Images and you’ll get a mosaic of scary images – women covered in black from head to toe, and screaming headlines of violence and hate. Despite the fact that a significant number of Muslim women around the world don’t cover themselves in that particular way, or don’t cover at all, we have become attuned by our media to consider those restrictive images as representative of more than a billion people. So when we put Muslim + women + dress together, we refuse to see anything other than what we want to see.  

On January 8, the Pew Research Center published a news item entitled “How People In Muslim Countries Prefer Women To Dress In Public.” You have to admit, it’s a provocative headline, one that catered to a lot of people and special interest groups for a variety of reasons. Only when you start reading carefully do you realize that it refers to a University of Michigan Institute of Social Research project that actually measured values and perceptions in Tunisia after the Arab Spring. Out of a 135-page report that dealt with a myriad of other factors, Pew decided to focus on a minute aspect of the report: a comparative study of Muslim women’s dress in seven Muslim countries.

I’m assuming that “How People In Muslim Countries Prefer Women To Dress In Public” made for a more attention-grabbing headline than “The Birthplace Of The Arab Spring: Values And Perceptions Of The Tunisian Public In A Comparative Perspective.” While the latter is a serious issue dealing with Tunisia’s social, economic, political and religious trends after the revolution commonly known as the Arab Spring, the former is just the right combination of words to fire up Islamophobes and feminists. In case words weren’t enough, there's this helpful infographic: 
The University of Michigan report was hardly about the topic of Muslim women, but in plucking the issue of women's dress Pew and others failed to mention some key points that would have made a difference to readers. For instance, the countries that reported a preference for women to cover themselves completely also reported high tolerance for other aspects of gender equality, such as female political leadership, choosing one’s own spouse, equal rights to jobs and other important indicators of equality. So despite all those positives we still think of these countries as authoritarian or abusive. Is dress more of a defining factor of gender equality than economics and politics? Given that several of the nations mentioned (including Iraq, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia) have a higher percentage of women in government than the U.S. one might expect more humility on the part of U.S.-based institutions. But of course even higher rates of representation in government aren't the ultimate gauge of gender equality. The point is that it's complicated.
A question about what is "appropriate" implies coercion, a lack of agency, so it's important to note that many Muslim women in the United States and abroad are choosing to wear the niqab or burqa without any coercion. Millions of women all over the world cover their faces and bodies and hair because they want to.

For those like me it’s a choice, a way to worship God, a form of our Muslim identity. That doesn’t demean me in any way, nor does it take anything away from the struggles of countless Muslim women who are forced to cover themselves by their families or their governments. Here’s the warning, though: Let’s not talk about women’s dress if you don’t want to simultaneously discuss politics, because legal definitions of dress/undress are political strategies whether they originate in Turkey, Saudi Arabia or France.  

But social media provides some of the best reactions:

@tinymuslimah: Except that I wish people understood that there's much more to Muslim women's lives than how we dress.

@SalyaAlHamdi: Sick of White middle class women dictating how Muslim women should dress.

@LibyaLiberty: Standing vertically. RT @HuffPostLive How should Middle Eastern women dress?

Saadia Faruqi is the interfaith liaison for the  women's group of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community and editor of Interfaith Houston. The views expressed in this post are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Ahmadiyya Community or Interfaith Houston. 

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