How Should Muslim Women Dress? Survey Compares Middle Eastern Countries


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.

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.

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Sources: Pew Research Center, UM Middle Eastern Values Study


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