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Survey Says: Muslim Women, Cover Your Hair, Not Your Faces

A new report by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research has shed some light on how Muslim women should cover up. Looking at surveys from seven predominately Muslim countries the researchers found that most respondents thought women should bare their faces, but cover their hair — completely. The study centered on Tunisia, but ...

Pew Research Center
Pew Research Center

A new report by the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research has shed some light on how Muslim women should cover up. Looking at surveys from seven predominately Muslim countries the researchers found that most respondents thought women should bare their faces, but cover their hair -- completely.

The study centered on Tunisia, but included survey results from Turkey, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Pakistan, and Egypt. While researchers investigated public perception of several hot-button issues including gender relations, politics, and religious tolerance, one of their more interesting findings had to do with veiling.

Participants were presented with six images of variously veiled women (pictured above) and asked "Which one of these women is dressed most appropriately for public places?"

A new report by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research has shed some light on how Muslim women should cover up. Looking at surveys from seven predominately Muslim countries the researchers found that most respondents thought women should bare their faces, but cover their hair — completely.

The study centered on Tunisia, but included survey results from Turkey, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Pakistan, and Egypt. While researchers investigated public perception of several hot-button issues including gender relations, politics, and religious tolerance, one of their more interesting findings had to do with veiling.

Participants were presented with six images of variously veiled women (pictured above) and asked "Which one of these women is dressed most appropriately for public places?"

Most respondents picked woman #4, whose conservative hijab covers her hair and ears but not her face. Saudis were the primary outlier, preferring option #2, a niqab that covers all but a woman’s eyes. But some of the results are counterintuitive to common veiling practices. For instance, while option #3 — a scarf that covers all but the face — is heavily promoted by religious authorities and conservatives in Lebanon, the majority of Lebanese respondents favored no head covering at all (option #6).

The researchers also found that Tunisians were the most supportive of women dressing as they wish, compared to 52 percent of Turks, 49 percent of Lebanese, 47 percent of Saudis, 24 percent of Iraqis, 22 percent of Pakistanis, and 14 percent of Egyptians.

The study’s authors argue that these findings reflect "a country’s orientations toward liberal values as well as the level of freedom people enjoy. In Lebanon, Tunisia, and Turkey, where people tend to be less conservative than the other four countries, the preferable style for women also tend to be much less conservative than the other four countries."

Catherine A. Traywick is a fellow at Foreign Policy.

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