Thursday, January 09, 2014

Appropriate Dress For Muslim Women And Other Gender Issues. The Pew Report.

I saw references to this yesterday.  Today several people have written about it.  Olga Khazan explains what the study did:

Wearing some form of head covering in public is an important sign of Islamic identity in many Muslim-majority countries, but there is considerable variation in the extent to which women are expected (and sometimes mandated) to cover up. 
A recent Pew report, based on a survey conducted by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research from 2011 to 2013 in seven majority-Muslim nations, reveals just how widely opinions about female attire differ in the region.
The researchers asked the respondents in each country, “Which one of these women is dressed most appropriately for public places?” while showing them this panel:

The panel is the top part of this (click to make it bigger) table, and the participating countries and their preferences are listed in the table below it:

The pictures  can be viewed as showing decreasing demand for women to cover up as we move to the right in the top row, though the first two options (the burqa and the niqab) are roughly the same.
The original survey(pdf) points out that the  preferences about women's head coverings do not correlate with the country's economic level of development but with its gender equality and social freedoms.

I  think they correlate most with the kind of Islam the country has adopted, the country's own cultural and social traditions and perhaps the current political meaning of a woman wearing the hijab or not wearing it.  Moreover, 27% of the Lebanese respondents defined themselves as Christians and that may explain why the Lebanese results pick the uncovered head as the most preferred alternative.

I was surprised by the Turkish results, as an aside, given the long reign of secularism in that country. The particular question doesn't actually seem to define the woman whose dress is to be judged as a believing Muslim.  It simply asks "Which one of these women is dressed most appropriately for
public places?"

The survey also asks whether women themselves should be allowed to decide on how they dress.  The responses to that question are shown in the graph below:

It's hard to know what to make of some of those answers, because part of all this is missing, and that would be what the consequences are if a woman chooses to dress in a way that is different from what the majority regards as appropriate for her.  It is those consequences which matter.

The overall survey (pdf) includes several additional questions about gender relations.  As examples, the majority of respondents in all the countries strongly disagree or disagree with the statement that it is acceptable for a man to have more than one wife.  Those percentages vary from 93% in Turkey to 51% in Saudi Arabia.

On the other hand, the vast majority of the respondents in all the countries agree or strongly agree with the statement that a wife must always obey her husband.  That percentage varies from the high of 95% in Egypt to the low of 62% in Lebanon.

The majority of respondents in all the countries would also give jobs to men over women in a tight labor market (when jobs are scarce, men should have more right to a job than women), and the majorities in all the countries surveyed agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that men make better political leaders than women do. 

But only in Saudi Arabia does the majority agree that university education is more important for boys than it is for girls.

It is these other responses which I find more meaningful for judging the role of women in those countries than the question of Muslim dress for women, though the various responses obviously are related to each other.

One such connection is Islam and the most common interpretations about various hadiths (the sayings of the prophet Muhammad) and what they mean for women's rights.  As an example, it has been argued that the hadith " A people which has a woman as a leader will never prosper" means that women should not be political leaders or even participate in politics.  Other interpretations are possible.

The wider question these answers elicit in me has to do with what the best way forward would be for those who are concerned about gender and women's rights within Islam.  Is it Islamic feminism?  Is it a focus on human rights?  Or can these be combined?
Added later:  I wrote an earlier post about a different survey which addresses some questions this one does not.  It includes more break-downs of respondents' answers by their gender, too.