How Should Muslim Women Dress? Survey Compares Middle Eastern Countries

| by Allison Geller

University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research just released the results of a survey tallying how Middle Easterners think that women should dress in public, with comparisons by country.

The survey was part of a study focused on Tunisia that relates prevalent Tunisian attitudes to those of other Arab countries, to assess how values are shifting in the birthplace of Arab Spring.

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Survey takers in each country were asked, “Which one of these women is dressed most appropriately for public places?” and given a choice of five clothing styles, ranging from face and hair completely covered to completely revealed.  

Researchers concluded of their findings: “The style #1 [the most conservative] is en vogue in Afghanistan; #2 is popular among both conservatives and fundamentalists in Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf Arab countries; #3 is the style vigorously promoted by Shi’i fundamentalism and conservatives in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon; #4 and #5 are considered most appropriate by modern Muslim women in Iran and Turkey; and #6 is preferred by secular women in the region. “

The overall response favored the white hijab, which covers a woman’s hair and ears but is less conservative than the black hijab or the nikab, which only reveals a woman’s eyes, or the full-hood burka.

“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,” the study writes. “Saudi Arabia, which is economically more developed, is most conservative in terms of women’s style of dress.”

The study instead found a connection between a country’s overall political value sand the level of personal freedom given to its people. In the less conservative societies of Lebanon, Tunisia, and Turkey, respondents favored a less conservative style of dress. The opposite is true for countries like Saudi Arabia.

The study did not include a breakdown of results by gender or religious affiliation, besides acknowledging countries with a large non-Muslim population. The liberal attitude of Lebanese respondents, for example, of which 49% thought that it was acceptable for women to go out in public with no head covering, may be partly explained by the fact that the group surveyed was 27% Christian.

Countries that favored a more relaxed dress style were more likely to agree that women should be able to choose how they dress in a second survey, but in conservative Saudi Arabia 47% also maintained that women should be given a choice.

The survey is the part of an ongoing University of Michigan study assessing changing values in the Middle East.

Sources: Pew Research Center, UM Middle Eastern Values Study