Veiling can be controversial in the Middle East. Views on it vary widely among and within countries, reflecting both the diversity of opinion in the region on how women should dress and the larger forces driving that debate. The range is really driven home by this chart, assembled by the Pew Research Center, showing how people in seven Mideastern countries answered a question posed by a University of Michigan study: Which of these six styles of dress is most appropriate for women?
First, a crash course in female Islamic dress. The styles go, left to right, from most conservative to most secular, although that's inexact. No. 1 is a full burqa, a style most identified with Afghanistan, which was not polled. No. 2 is the niqab, most commonly seen in, for example, Saudi Arabia. No. 3 is the chador, which is at times associated with conservative interpretations of Shiite Islam, particularly in Iran. No. 4 is the more basic al-amira, which is common in lots of places and in lots of Muslim communities, including here in the United States. No. 5 is the simple head scarf, and No. 6 is the secular-style absence of any hijab, the overarching term for a head covering. (Unfortunately, the study doesn't report results by gender; male and female respondents are lumped together.)
There are a few interesting details that jump out right away. The countries where the most people deemed hijab-free No. 6 the most appropriate were Lebanon (although that's misleading, since a quarter of the Lebanese respondents were Christian) and Turkey, where there's been a fierce culture war between Islamism and secularism for decades now. Tunisia also had 15 percent of people pick this option; the country has long had an unusually secular-leaning, Europe-facing middle class and was for decades ruled by avowedly secular dictators. Otherwise, though, very, very few Middle Easterners preferred this option.
The countries where people most embrace conservative dress for women are, by far, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Americans don't always see those two countries as similarly conservative, and they are indeed very different in many ways, but this is a reminder that religious conservatism and piety run deep in both. Interestingly, Pakistanis split between the niqab and the chador (Nos. 2 and 3, respectively); that may be because Pakistan has a significant Shiite minority, which may have leaned toward the chador. I was surprised to see a full 11 percent of Saudis say they prefer the ultraconservative burqa, which is most closely associated with Afghanistan.
Perhaps the most telling statistics have to do with the people who said they preferred options 4 and 5. Those may not exactly reflect Western-style secularism, but they are a relatively liberal form of veiling that allows a degree of self-expression and, with the simple head scarf, control over the degree to which it covers one's face. Call it a sort of negotiation between competing social forces. It's interesting, then, how many Pakistanis and Egyptians chose these options, suggesting a possible social divide in these countries between advocates of full veiling and supporters of something a touch more relaxed.
Veiling is such a sensitive issue in much of the Middle East because, in many ways, it's about much more than just clothing. It's about religious vs. secular identity, about the degree to which women are or are not afforded equality and about embracing or rejecting social norms that are seen as distinctly Islamic.
The result I found the most interesting is the one not on this chart: how many people in each country say that women have a right to dress how they want. You might expect that countries where people answer "yes" to this would also be the ones where more people say women should go unveiled. But that's not quite how it lines up. Saudis are much more supportive of this freedom for women than are Egyptians and Iraqis, for example, even though Saudis tend to approve of much more conservative clothing. Here's how many poll respondents in each country said women should have a right to dress as they wish:
Saudi Arabia: 47%
That last result should be a reminder for us that, even though we often equate the two in the West, a preference for veiling is not always the same thing as a belief that women shouldn't have the right to choose their own clothing. Piety and feminism are not necessarily mutually exclusive forces. Still, it's too bad that, even in the countries most supportive of this very basic freedom, only about half support it.