Women are more than their clothes

The recent Pew survey on Muslim women ignored the real experiences of hundreds of millions of women, writes Shelina Janmohamed

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In a recent Pew Survey, 20,000 people across seven western nations were asked what is the most appropriate clothing for women to wear.

They were presented with a card showing images of six different women in various types of dress showing increasing amounts of skin: long dress, formal trouser suit, knee length skirt, little black dress, French maid outfit and bikini

Feminists came out in force to denounce the ludicrousness of asking what is appropriate for women to wear, and in the process reducing them to essentialist stereotypes.

Women are driven by a complicated mixture of personal motives and cultural determinants which manifest themselves through local fashion norms, they explained.

Oh no, wait, they didn’t. Such a demolition of nonsense about what people consider appropriate attire for women would only be afforded to western women, whereas this survey – apologies for inverting the actual survey to prove my point – was about Muslim women. And as we all know, Muslim women must always be reduced to stereotypical images of what they look like.

The survey by the Pew Forum in fact polled men and women in seven Middle Eastern countries about which style of dress they thought was most appropriate for women to wear in public.

There were six possible answers, including a full burqa, a shayla, an Iranian chador, and a plain white headscarf which covered the hair but not the face. The plain white headscarf – neutral of all cultures – was the most popular.

The results in my view are confusing and of limited value at best, and I’ve tried to look for the good in the research. It’s worth noting that this wasn’t a survey to only ask about Muslim women’s attire. The question came as part of a wider study of attitudes.

The researchers say that the response to the question on attire correlates with gender equality ratings. Except that it doesn’t according to their own research. In Tunisia for example, where they note a generally more liberal attitude, more conservative forms of dress were preferred.

More important in my view is to note that from the broader sweep of the study, it is the findings on what Muslim women are supposed to look like that has captured western media attention.

These are stereotypes. They don’t tell us anything about the complexity of women’s lives, or why they choose to dress in a particular way, or the context of their choices.

The six images don’t really appear to have anything to do with conservatism or oppressiveness through the lens of “appropriateness”, but like all fashion, are more indicative of what is the norm in a particular culture and how much variation and in which direction that variation falls.

Besides, the six images relate to six very different cultures. Some would never ever be seen in some countries, so why would they be appropriate?

But mostly, it’s the flattening of Muslim women’s experiences that I object to. How on earth can you reduce a billion women to six types by what they wear? We don’t study western women by how much skin they show, so why analyse Muslim women by how much hair is exposed?

Most objectionable is the lust with which the western narrative has consumed this analysis of stereotypes. It is just one more incident in a tedious and constant repetition that when it comes to Muslim women all that matters is what we wear.

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and blogs at www.spirit21.co.uk