By: Syed Mohammad Ali
The role of Muslim women in society has evoked increasing attention over the past decade. While Muslim women are often stereotyped as victims of subjugation within Muslim countries, their status in Western societies is no less problematic. Recent attempts to forcibly secularise their dress code, for instance, through legislative attempts in France have unleashed fierce debates pitting non-Muslim against Muslim feminists, and liberals against other proclaimed defenders of human freedom.
The University of Michigan’s Population Studies Centre, in collaboration with other research partners, recently released a research report, focusing on the prevailing situation in select Muslim countries. The report aims to assess people’s opinions using identical surveys on issues ranging from their attitudes towards America to support for Islamic government. It is this survey’s findings concerning gender issues, which have received the most attention, even as they reinforce existing Western stereotypes concerning the exploitation of women in Muslim countries. One of the survey questions asked respondents from all seven countries about how women should dress in public. Of the around 3,500 Pakistanis surveyed (51 per cent of whom were males), a significant proportion (63 per cent) favoured a niqab or an abaya. This finding is surprising, given that women in rural areas, especially those who work in the fields, do not comply with such a dress code.
While nearly half the survey respondents from Tunisia, Lebanon and Turkey said that women should be allowed to dress as they pleased, only 22 per cent of Pakistanis agreed. Eight per cent of Pakistanis disagreed with the need for male authority over women. On the other hand, 29 per cent of Pakistanis disagreed when asked whether men make better political leaders than women. Are a higher percentage of men in our country willing to accept female political leadership rather than foregoing women’s obedience within the household?
The percentage of Pakistani respondents reported to support the right of men to be given preference in employment over women, or those opposed to ensuring gender equality in obtaining tertiary education, were also very disappointing. It is hard to refute the fact that developing countries like Pakistan will find it next to impossible to achieve prosperity with such deeply ingrained gender biases. However, it is easy enough to challenge the accuracy of the above survey on the basis of representativeness and its overall findings. In fact, The Express Tribune itself used some of the questions from the University of Michigan’s survey to conduct an online poll to which 2,235 people responded. Out of them, 61 per cent voted in favour of women dressing as they wish.
The situation within Muslim countries remains far from ideal for women. Yet, Western researchers need to realise that the challenges facing Muslim women are not confined to Muslim countries. Muslim women in Western countries are also being subjected to prejudices, which marginalise their participation within multicultural societies. Studies revealing the underlying causes of this phenomenon, across different Western countries with significant Muslim populations, would thus also make for a compelling study. Such research would provide Western policymakers the impetus to do something to provide a more enabling environment for Muslim women.