On Wednesday, the Pew Research Center released a graphic, based on research from University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, that purported to show how people in Muslim-majority countries think it is appropriate for women to dress in public. Business Insider was one of many publications that picked up the chart — it was, by any standard, a monstrous viral hit.
In case you missed it, here’s the chart:
A lot of people saw this chart, and it appears that most people found it interesting. Others, however, seemed very upset by it.
Guardian writer Arwa Mahdawi argues that the study and its success was “yet another demonstration of the west’s bizarre fixation on what Muslim women wear and how they cover their hair.” Pointing out that the average woman in the United Kingdom spends almost £26,500 ($43,600) a year on their hair, Mahdawi argues that “women’s hair in the west functions as it’s own sort of veil, one which most of us are unconsciously donning.”
Over at the Independent, Bina Shah, who grew up in Pakistan, goes even further. “Muslim women’s fashions have been interpreted and over-analysed by the Western world as some sort of profound assertion of political identity or religious stance,” Shah writes. “Yes, there is an element of that in there, but the bigger truth is that Muslim women wear what they do, including what’s on their heads, because of how it makes them look and feel, just like all women around the world, and it takes on the cultural overtones of the milieu in which they live.”
Two more criticisms from Twitter:
What is this fascination w what Muslim women wear? Can Pew tell me more about how ppl in ‘Western’ countries prefer women 2 dress in public?
— Dalia Hatuqa (@DaliaHatuqa) January 9, 2014
One woman — Saudi Arabian media personality Muna AbuSulayman — was both surprised by how widely the chart was circulated, and by the fact that her picture was on it:
What a lot of the criticisms come down to is the idea that the chart is part of a wider problem in Western discourse on places like the Middle East: Orientalism. A term first coined in post-colonialist theorist Edward W. Saïd’s 1978 book of the same name, Orientalism refers to a “subtle and persistent Eurocentric prejudice against Arabo-Islamic peoples and their culture.” Western critics were unable to check their own bias when talking about outside place, Saïd argued. The idea is certainly persuasive.
I’d wager that most critics of the Pew Research chart might be less concerned with the research itself than the remarkable viral interest in it, and that is a fair point — why is the West so obsessed with burqas, hijabs, and other styles of Islamic dress? I’d guess it is because veils are frequently used as an example of the patriarchal style of Muslim culture, though the reality is often more complicated than that. Sharing this image is an easy but far too simple way to criticise that patriarchy.
Perhaps the best response to the chart came from Lebanese satirist Karl Sharro, who tweeted his own version of the chart, this time edited to include white women dressed as cheerleaders and hamburgers:
“Instead of looking at the complexity of women, we’re not even looking at the full way they dress, just the headdress,” Sharro told PRI’s The World. “It’s a particularly harsh way of doing this form of abstraction […] This was a way for me to visually spoof the image and a way for me to say that stereotypes work both ways.”
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