Why We Don't Need Another Survey Reinforcing Stereotypes of Muslim Women


The University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research recently conducted a survey on how Muslim-majority countries (Tunisia, Egypt, Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia) prefer women to dress in public. 

The survey asked respondents to identify what style of headdress is appropriate for public spaces. The styles of dress were separated into six categories: a "fully-hooded burqa (woman #1) and niqab (#2) to the less conservative hijab (women #4 and #5). There was also the option of a woman wearing no head covering of any type."

Pew Research Center put together a handy infographic based on the study's findings: 

Image Credit: Pew Research Center

Ah, what a refreshing way to talk about Muslim women. 

Here's my two-cents: Why do we only see studies on women's visibility from Muslim-majority regions? People everywhere have pressure placed on them to represent a society's shared systems of value and belief.

Does anyone truly think that women in the United States are not subjected to similar forms of scrutiny? Just take a look at the discourse around rape culture here, and you will quickly find your answer.

Studies like these reinforce a reductive idea of the Muslim world, and that empowerment can somehow measured based on how covered — or uncovered — women are. But this misses the point entirely. 

Studies like these continue to reduce Muslim women's identities. They reinforce the stereotypical idea that they have a singular purpose: to be seen or not seen. A survey asking people if women should have the freedom to choose their own clothing does not illuminate the diversity of experiences these women face. 

Dress codes, while they raise issues worth tackling, are not the biggest indication of gender inequality. Validating the idea that those issues are only of concern "over there" does a disservice to women's rights activists in both regions. When we focus on elements of visibility, we turn conversations away from the intricate social, political, and economic advancements happening in women's developments in Muslim-majority countries.

Yet another study in which Muslim women are discussed rather than listened to helps reinforce the concept of needing to save Muslim women. If Muslim women are being forced to cover in public spaces, and they can't speak up, they must need our help, right? 

This line of thinking has taken us down a dangerous road before, and it's time to change it.