June 8, 2006

A survey of Muslim women

A Gallup poll of Muslim women:
When asked what they resented most about their own societies, a majority of Muslim women polled said that a lack of unity among Muslim nations, violent extremism, and political and economic corruption were their main concerns. The hijab, or head scarf, and burqa, the garment covering face and body, seen by some Westerners as tools of oppression, were never mentioned in the women's answers to the open-ended questions, the poll analysts said.
That sounds perfectly rational to this Western woman. I don't like the gratuitous characterization of "some Westerners" here. Even those of us who are critical of forcing women to wear religious garb don't think this belongs at the top of the list when there are so many other problems.
Concerning women's rights in general, most Muslim women polled associated sex equality with the West. Seventy-eight percent of Moroccan women, 71 percent of Lebanese women and 48 percent of Saudi women polled linked legal equality with the West. Still, a majority of the respondents did not think adopting Western values would help the Muslim world's political and economic progress.

The most frequent response to the question, "What do you admire least about the West?" was the general perception of moral decay, promiscuity and pornography that pollsters called the "Hollywood image" that is regarded as degrading to women.
A lot of us here in the West aren't thrilled with those things. The key question -- was it asked? -- is whether you think you can extract the good values from a tradition not your own and adapt it for your own use.


Goesh said...

We will assume every husband/male relative granted permission for the women to be surveyed first - we wouldn't want any gaping holes in the ol' bell curve. I was hoping for a few driving questions to be asked of Saudi women since Saudi Arabia is one of the most influential Arab nations going....

1.) Do you think it is wrong to behead a woman for attempting to drive a car? ___yes ___no
2.) Should women who touch a car be stoned or flogged? ___stoned
3.) Is it OK for a woman to look at a car? ____yes ____no

Simon said...

I read an interview with Natacha Atlas once wherein she pointed out that a culture that accepts cosmetic surgery should think twice before criticizing the veil, since both are essentially ways to obscure a person's true features.

I also remember reading a newspaper report where the columnist expressed great surprise that most British female muslims who wear the hijab told a poll that it is their choice, and that far from it being a tool of the patriarchy, many of them wear it in defiance of their husband's preference.

Funnily enough, I disapprove of cosmetic surgery far more than I do religious garb.

Joe said...

I wonder if they asked any women who were accustomed to wearing Western clothing, and who were then forced to wear the religous garb when the regime became fundamentalist.

Joe said...

I wonder if they asked any women who were accustomed to wearing Western clothing, and who were then forced to wear the religous garb when the regime became fundamentalist.

Bissage said...

What on earth does it mean to resent "a lack of unity among Muslim nations"?

paulfrommpls said...

So before we can look askance at the forced wearing of the veil, we have to prohibit cosmetic surgery?

That's a perfect little semi-precious gemstone of cool-sounding intellectual left nonsense, Simon. Wow.

Travis Wheatley said...

I'm not sure I see Ms. Atlas's point. I recognize that western cultures have their own issues regarding women's appearances, but I see no reason for a culture that allows a women to have surgery to change her appearance to think twice before criticizing a culture that forces women to wear a veil. Sure, there are complicated issues involving whether american women feel pressured by society to conform to a certain arbitrary standard of beauty, and questions about whether women in cultures that utilize the veil wear it because they really want to. Still, I think it does a terrible disservice to women everywhere to imply that there is some equivalence between social pressure to have elective surgery and state sanctioned (and often state implemented) violence against women who do not wear a veil.

Sloanasaurus said...

I don't have a problem with the religious garb either - as long as they do it in their own country. However, if you are a muslim woman and you live in the United States, you need to get rid of the Halloween costume. I saw a woman in a burka the other day in Minneapolis - how absurd and ridiculous. She should be arrested at a mximum and ridiculed at a minimum. The whole thing is distracting, and in this country it is viewed as oppression and not as religious. If you want to move and live in the United States, then you need to assimilate.

Simon said...

The fact seems to be, though, that many arab and islamic women continue to wear the veil - or at least a hijab - even when they are not under governmental coercion or social / familial pressure to do so. I actually think that a culture that fails to place a moral opprobrium on elective cosmetic surgery is far more bankrupt than one that prefers women to wear the hijab; it's one thing to have a culture that makes sartorial demands of a person, and quite another to make surgical demands. I really don't see how "there are complicated issues involving whether american women feel pressured by society to conform to a certain arbitrary standard of beauty" - it doesn't strike me as being "complicated" and it doesn't strike me as being a "whether". I think American women are absolutely undoubtedly pressured to conform to an arbitrary standard of beauty. There is a significant sector of the American economy which depends for its existence on convincing women that they are fat, inadequate and ugly, and without meaning to put too fine a point on it, I really don't have a particularly high opinion of the folks who voluntarily work in those industries. See generally, N. Wolfe, The Beauty Myth.

"I saw a woman in a burka the other day in Minneapolis - how absurd and ridiculous. She should be arrested at a mximum and ridiculed at a minimum . . . If you want to move and live in the United States, then you need to assimilate."

Yes. She should know better; this is America. As we all know, the sine qua non of America is that people should be ridiculed and even arrested for the free exercise of their religious views and sartorial proclivities.

Simon said...

paulfrommpls said...
"So before we can look askance at the forced wearing of the veil, we have to prohibit cosmetic surgery? That's a perfect little semi-precious gemstone of cool-sounding intellectual left nonsense, Simon."

It's one thing to look askance at it being forced; it is quite another to look at it on its own merits, or when there is merely a common social pressure. Of course we can frown on laws that enforce it, but absolutely a culture that tolerates cosmetic surgery should tolerate the hijab.

I got a little chuckle out of being told I'm espousing a left wing viewpoint, Paul. Let's have a quick show of hands, how many people here who routinely read my comments think Simon is left wing? LOL.

Travis Wheatley said...

Please excuse any spelling errors - I don't want to lose this post if preview screws up.

In the abstract, all other things being equal, I suppose I could see how one might prefer a society that encouraged a veil to one that didn't discourage cosmetic surgery. I'll even give that someone the benefit of the doubt and assume that their main reason was concern for the women undergoing surgery, instead of chauvinistic ideas about female modesty. However, neither society we are discussing fits these profiles. I will not claim to have omniscient knowledge of American or Middle Eastern culture, but I do think some generalities are fair. First, while there is a great emphasis on looks in american culture, i have never gotten the impression that cosmetic surgery is an extremely widespread phenomen. Lots of people have minor procedures such as botox, but it seems the more major procedures are generally confined to certain groups, mostly celebrities and those in celebrity-related circles (say, Beverly Hills and Manhattan). I'm not saying it doesn't happen elsewhere, just that the unhealth behaviors Americans exhibit don't tend to involve cosmetic surgery. Second, I am unaware of a culture that does not value certain characteristics and conceive of them as signs of beauty, whether it is blond hair and big breasts, or big butts, or rubenesque figures, or long necks, or stretched lips, etc. This does not excuse the american preoccupation with a certain look, but does indicate that it appears to be human to sieze upon somewhat arbitrary (I don't want to digress and bring evolutionary psychology into the picture) standards. We may do it on a large scale, but it is not as if it is an element of our culture that we do not share with other cultures. Third, while advertising and peer pressure may be unfair and unhealthily persuasive, it is not as if the proponents of the veil are conducting their campaigns through movies and articles in Saudi Arabian Seventeen about how cute the summer veils are. We are talking about real coercion, through laws and police power, and when that fails, through violence. Google acid and veil together for some choice examples. Or here:

Even though our culture accepts cosmetic surgery, we should feel free to criticize the veil in countries where it is imposed through coercion.

LoafingOaf said...

The fact seems to be, though, that many arab and islamic women continue to wear the veil - or at least a hijab - even when they are not under governmental coercion or social / familial pressure to do so.

And the fact is many of them would not or else why the need for the coercion? It's important to spell out precisely what some of this coercion is in some parts of the Muslim world. Acid thrown on faces and painted fingernails yanked out with pliers are two notable examples. I've no problem with a Muslim woman in a free country freely choosing to wear Muslim get-ups. Sure, I might think it's sad that someone wants to hide themselves and does so because of some religious cult's B.S., but I'm not gonna be mean to them about it as I live and let live (an attitude I picked up from Western culture!). Anyway, there's gender apartheid in most of the Muslim world and how women are often required to dress is just one aspect of that huge evil.

Travis is exactly right that all cultures have their beauty standards.

I'd also add that your condemnation of elected cosmetic surgery is a bit extreme. I haven't had cosmetic surgery, but I did go through extensive procedures to fix my teeth and I'm much happier because of it. I think it's rather nice that people have some ability to mold their physical appearances more to their liking. Sure, some take it too far, or perhaps are allowing the culture to make themselves feel worse about their appearance than they should. But people have always modified their appearances via all sorts of means for aesthetic reasons, and cosmetic surgery gives us more opportunities to modify ourselves to feel good about how we look. For every person who you could hold up as getting ill-advised cosmetic surgery for all the wrong reasons, I'm sure I could find a person for whom it was one of the best decisions they ever made and have been happier ever since.

LoafingOaf said...

The hijab, or head scarf, and burqa, the garment covering face and body, seen by some Westerners as tools of oppression, were never mentioned in the women's answers to the open-ended questions, the poll analysts said.

Of course it's a tool of opression in countries like Saudi Arabia. In Saudi Arabia all the many tools of opression go together to serve excluding women from the man's world or from being equal citizens.

I've read that two-thirds of Internet users in Saudi Arabia are women, because on the Internet they can include themselves in all sorts of things without leaving home, such as starting their own businesses. It seems to me these women want to be free and will take advantage of any little opportunities at greater freedom they can. This is part of the reason the Islamic-fascists are going nuts.

As to this poll, Dalia Mogahed of The Gallup World Poll "was born in Egypt and wears a Islamic head scarf [and rejects] the idea that Muslim women had been brainwashed by the dominant male culture...."

Amazingly enough her poll backs her up.

I'll be interested in seeing a poll one day in a Muslim country where women are actually free.

And perhaps Mogahed should talk to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who gave a speech in Berlin this year where she stated she used to be brainwashed:

I am a dissident, like those from the Eastern side of this city who defected to the West. I too defected to the West. I was born in Somalia, and grew up in Saudi Arabic and Kenya. I used to be faithful to the guidelines laid down by the prophet Muhammad. Like the thousands demonstrating against the Danish drawings, I used to hold the view that Muhammad was perfect -- the only source of, and indeed, the criterion between good and bad. In 1989 when Khomeini called for Salman Rushdie to be killed for insulting Muhammad, I thought he was right. Now I don’t....

She also said:
I think that the prophet Muhammad was wrong to have subordinated women to men....

I am not the only dissident in Islam. There are more like me here in the West. If they have no bodyguards they work under false identities to protect themselves from harm. But there are also others who refuse to conform: in Teheran, in Doha and Riyadh, in Amman and Cairo, in Khartoum and in Mogadishu, in Lahore and in Kabul.


Travis Wheatley said...

Rereading my comments, I was harsher on cosmetic surgery than I meant to be. I was arguing that even if you think it is bad, you should still criticize coercion aimed at making women wear the veil. I think that cosmetic surgery can be a healthy thing. Similarly, I don't think the U.S. is a particularly bad place when it comes to conceptions of beauty, at least in general.

Michael Farris said...

So, Muslim women have their own values and opinions that don't dovetail with common American stereotypes about them.
What's so surprising here?

As for the veil:

Head covering for women is part of all of the Middle Eastern religions AFAIK (though it's been pretty marginal in most kinds of Christianity for a long time now). Personally, I'm against any kind of coercion in making women wear or not wear head covering.

Face covering is something else again and immigrants from those countries to western countries need to be able to leave it behind in public. Showing your face is a necessary part of civil society and no country that practices face covering has anything remotely like civil society. On the other hand, hair and neck covering should be allowed for those that wish to practice it.

ignacio said...

Simon, are you aware that in Syria and Saudi Arabia (just to name two countries) many wives wear Victoria's Secrets' sexy lingerie beneath the burkha?

And did you happen to see the interview with the prominent Egyptian imam who said that all unmarried women over 30 should have clitoridectimies, because otherwise they threatened the harmony of the community? This was no more than three months ago.

Goesh said...

Now, now! I didn't want to design my little survey about driving with any sex questions thrown into the mix..... however in keeping with the spirit and reality of the muslim world, I feel I must:

Do you think woman who sign a pledge to never drive a car should be allowed to keep their clitoris?
____yes ____no

knoxgirl said...

Here's the thing: nothing comes for free.

In this culture, pretty much "anything goes" for women, and we have a whole world of choices. The downside is, some will make really stupid choices. Some will dress like sluts. Some will let their young daughters dress like sluts. Some will emulate the botoxed cast of "Desperate Housewives." Is this kind of sad? Yeah, sure I guess.

But the thing is, these same women also have the option to not dress like a slut... the vast, vast majority choose not to get plastic surgery. And guess what, they can even choose to wear a burqa or robe if they really feel like it.

Again, nothing comes for free. You gotta take the bad with the good. I'll take the "bad" of our westernized, liberated, slut culture over that of the burqa culture any day.

mishu said...

I too think it's silly find some equivalent between modifying your appearance to attract potential mates as some sort oppression against women. #1, this practice does not fall exclusively to the dominion of women. If you don't believe me, I'll introduce you to a guy who's not only the president of a club but also a member. #2, this practice has been in place long before there were any organized societies practice the concept of oppression. It's been in place before there were humans. A dog will roll around in "something" to change his scent to attract mates. Are you to tell me that that dog is oppressed?

As to the burka, chador or whatever. Religion is used only as a justification. Thousands of years ago, men found these to be convient devices to marry off their ugly, undesirable daughters to unsuspecting chumps. I believe there's a story about that in the Bible.

McCarroll said...

Funnily enough, I disapprove of cosmetic surgery far more than I do religious garb.

Cosmetic surgery is a personal choice. Wearing religious garb is very frequently not.

Frank Warner said...

It's terrible that all Americans are forced to have cosmetic surgery.

Raise hands: How many of you Americans have been able to escape this regulation?

John B. Chilton said...

Many of y'all seem to be asssuming that a great majority of Muslim women wear a veil that covers their face. And that many of those that do do so involuntarily. That's just not the case in most of the Muslim world. Or that there are religious police runnning around enforcing a dress code. Again, not an accurate generalization of the Muslim world. And even among countries where there are dress-code police the dress code that is being enforced rarely includes covering of the face.

Further, consider those cases where women do wear a veil covering their face (the argument generalizes to the case of a veil (hijab) that covers only the hair, or to the abaya that loosely covers the body). Most often they do so as a matter of family tradition, and they have been brought up in that tradition. Just as in the west, they are likely to be aculturated and habituated to a way of dress, and most find these conventions a comfort and not a confinement.

There's also identity to consider. It has been my sense living in the United Arab Emirates (where only 15% of the population are nationals) that nationals wear native costume to be able to identify each other and to stand apart from nonnationals. For the women this uniform is a black hijab covering the hair and a black abaya.*

Then consider marriage. Even if the woman's choices are limited, it would be unusual for her to enter into a marriage with a man who would insist wearing of the veil in a fashion that was not consistent with that of her family.

It is also not adequately appreciated that women in traditional societies learn to be good negotiators and diplomats. It may only appear that they are not the ones making the decisions when in fact it took a good deal of tact to get the family or husband to decide it was okay for the woman to dress less traditionally, or to go to college, or to take a job, etc. She gets what she wants partly by making that become her family/husband's decision.

*See also: From butterflies to crystals, abayas turn trendy in Gulf - Yahoo! News. Limits are been tested - are you staying in bounds by taking the hijab and abaya and then applying external expressions to them?

sarnac said...

I am not pro-middle-east by any stretch, but I have to turn this argument around for a bit:

In their culture scalp-hair is a _major_ turn-on to their males (who have other social and relationship-maturity problems, but that is not the subject of this post).

Middle-east female enculturation assigns scalp-hair to the same must-hide condition that Americans consider for the female chest (but the EU doesn't). A Persian woman customer of the Persian restaurant where my wife belly-dances had her hair-covering off in the restroom and urgently covered up as my wife entered. So a female, in a ladies-room, with no males nearby feels the urge to cover up as though an American had had her shirt off. (And my (british-background, agnostic) wife was in her bra-and-belt outfit that would get her killed in the mideast, so not like it was another strict female who had entered. Note also that few of the arab or persian female customers and none of the female staff wear headcoverings, so the odds of anyone walking into the ladies-room who cares about head-covering is tiny.)

So while we Americans decry hijabs and abayas, we force our females to wear shirts at all times while males do not have to ... completely parallel double-standard ... and for the same reasons ... mideast males have as much trouble staying calm/sane when a woman's hair is exposed (because they are not used to it) as American males do walking around on EU topless beaches. It is a direct parallel. So why do we Americans hold that double standard then decry the parallel mideast double standard?

(Actually, there is one answer ... because bras do more than just cover, they support ... and our cultural rules and mores were created at a time when safety/protective rules had to be culturally/religiously encoded to be enforced ... like not to eat shellfish unless prepared/cleaned a certain way, do not eat meat from animals too close to humaniform or pigs (that are crossinfectable to sicken humans). Wearing chest-supportive garb may have been useful (to prevent sagging?) and so was culturally encoded as "the right thing to do" without specifying why exactly.)

Ann Althouse said...

Sarnac: The idea that women must be constrained to keep men from going crazy is an old one. It's slightly touching that men think we're so sexy, but also incredibly lame that they don't need to make the effort to restrain themselves from behaving badly.

And studies have shown that bras do not help keep breasts from sagging. They, in fact, weaken the ligaments and make the problem worse.

genwolf said...

The idea that the enforced or even pressured wearing of the veil is in some sense the equivalent, in terms of the opressivness or misogyny involved, of the greater acceptance of plastic surgery is idiotic.

Plastic surgery is not mandatory, and I would say that most people still frown on it or at least reagrd it as vaguely direputable except to correct severe defects or disfiguring injuries. Yes we are a culture often obseesed with appearance, but I think that is as much an obsession that women have as men do. But at the same time we have powerful currents in our culture that insist that appearnce is superficial, unimportant and attention to it a sign of intellecual and spiritual shallowness. The two ideas are as much in dialectic with each other today as they ever have been. Plastic surgery has become more popular because it has become more effective, and it is elective and expensive. The fact is that some people are going to be uncomfortable about their appearance. Perhaps if Simon ha his way their would be mandatory wearing of the Burka so that the evil of people feeeling uncomforatble or inhappy about the way they look can be banished form the world. Of course the reason the Burka is worn is for precisely the opposite of making the ugly feel comfortable - it is because good looking women might cause men to be lustful, so rather than men trying to control themsleves women are confined to a movable cage which every moment of every day is a reminder of the fact that they are to be rendered anonymous and have to live inside an immensley constrictive and inconvenient garment purely so males might not fall into religious error.

As far as the hollywood image of the west - the promiscuity and sin and moral decay - it should be born in mind that this iimage is the one presented to these women much less by the west per se as it is the stuff of the occidentalists who to large degree control discourse in their society. It bears as much resemblance to reality as the lurid Anti-americanism of Nazi or Soviet propaganda - and is in fact of a very similar flavour. Yes it is in part fashioned from the stuff of Hollywod flims and TV - but no more than popular culture in most countries - and probably less so in America than elsewhere.

My biggest objection to the wearing of the Hijab or Chador or Burka is not the affirmation of religious identity, against which I have little objection (though we should notice that this affirmation seems a thin excuse when it is only mandtory on one sex and not the other). It is that the wearing of the veil makes a statement about thsoe who do not wear it that should by now be understood - it is not a badge of chastity but of respectability - and the statement being made about those who do ot wear it is that they are not respectable, rather than that they are not Muslim. A woman in many Muslim countries, and even in many areas in the west were Muslims live in high conecntrations, cannot wear what would be considered otherwise failry normall attire in the west without being seriously harrassed.

marjon said...


Saudi Arabia does not behead women. I believe they are shot, but not be-headed.
Women in Saudi Arabia own cars. They are not allowed to drive them so they hire drivers.
Women in Saudi Arabia have their own banks. When married they recieve a dowery that is their nest egg if divorced.

secretdubai said...

The FGM/clitoridectories is a backwards African custom. It happens in Africa to women of all religions. It's never been a tradition in the Gulf/Saudi/Levant, except possibly among African migrant communities.

So while dickwits like this Egyptian imam may try to pervert religion to encourage it, the fact is that it's not a reality for most muslim women outside Africa.

I couldn't care less if women want to wear the veil or not. What I find kind of icky is when I see a local (emirati) guy here in western dress to the style of a tight, short-sleeved muscle t-shirt and tight jeans, often with some western slogan, and his wife is all in black more often than not with the full face veil. That kind of repulses me. I can't quite define why, but it does. There's something hypocritical about it perhaps.

Saira said...

I apologise to the blog owner, but I wanted to address the first comment made on this post, and its author, and didn't know how else to do it but on your blog.

Mr goesh,

Let me inform you that I used to live in Saudi Arabia, and my mother did more than "attempting to drive a car" - she actually - wait for it - DROVE one, on numerous occasions, and she was not *beheaded*.

I and my mother both touched cars, and were not stoned. How do you think they get around if they can't even touch the car they're travelling in? For your information, we were not "flogged" or "stoned". Thanks for the concern, though!

And that last one... well that's just about ludicrous enough for me not to have to address.

Saira said...

By the way - I completely respect and admire the open mind with which you approached the results of this survey, Ann.

Thank you for understanding that the scarves on the heads of Muslim women doesn't somehow impair their ability to think for themselves and make decisions that they feel are right for themselves.

Saira said...


rmn said...

I have a simple question, other issues aside - in what way does wearing a head scarf represent oppression?

Saira said...