How Muslim women should dress—according to inhabitants of Muslim-majority countries

A Pew Research poll taken in 2014 canvassed both men and women in 7 Muslim majority countries to see what style of dress the inhabitants (equally divided between men and women) thought was appropriate to wear in public.  Here are the data, ranging from burqa (#1) on the left to no veiling on the right.  #2 is a niqab (a face covering, here also worn with full body covering),#3 is a chador, or open cloak covering the whole body except for the face and hands, and #4 and #5 are forms of hijabs—head coverings.


Pew summarizes the methods and data:

The survey treated the question of women’s dress as a visual preference. Each respondent was given a card depicting six styles of women’s headdress and asked to choose the woman most appropriately outfitted for a public place. Although no labels were included on the card, the styles ranged from a fully-hooded burqa (woman #1) and niqab (#2) to the less conservative hijab (women #4 and #5). There was also the option of a woman wearing no head covering of any type.

Overall, most respondents say woman #4, whose hair and ears are completely covered by a white hijab, is the most appropriately dressed for public. This includes 57% in Tunisia, 52% in Egypt, 46% in Turkey and 44% in Iraq. In Iraq and Egypt, woman #3, whose hair and ears are covered by a more conservative black hijab, is the second most popular choice.

In Pakistan, there is an even split (31% vs. 32%) between woman #3 and woman #2, who is wearing a niqab that exposes only her eyes, while nearly a quarter (24%) choose woman #4. In Saudi Arabia, a 63%-majority prefer woman #2, while an additional 11% say that the burqa worn by woman #1 is the most appropriate style of public dress for women.

In several countries, substantial minorities say it is acceptable for a woman to not cover her hair in public. Roughly a third (32%) of Turks take this view, as do 15% of Tunisians. Nearly half (49%) in Lebanon also agree that it is acceptable for a woman to appear in public without a head covering, although this may partly reflect the fact that the sample in Lebanon was 27% Christian. Demographic information, including results by gender, were not included in the public release of this survey.

Note that among the countries surveyed, only Saudi Arabia (where the niqab was seen as the most appropriate dress) has mandatory veiling laws, yet in no country was the unveiled woman seen as having the “most appropriate” dress in public. The more liberal states, Turkey and Lebanon, do have the most respondents saying that no veiling is appropriate for streetwear.

With these kinds of views, can you really say that the choice of veiling in countries other than Saudi (where it’s mandatory) is a “choice”? Legal sanction can, of course, be replaced by social pressure, as it apparently has been in many places.

What’s scarier is the poll below, also taken among men and women. The answer, of course, should be “yes,” but only in Tunisia and Turkey was that the majority view, and only narrowly. What does it mean, then, for women in these lands (save Saudi Arabia) to say that veiling is their “choice”?


Pew also has an interview with lead researcher Mansoor Moaddel, a Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland and a Research Affiliate at the University of Michigan’s Population Studies Center. There he addresses the second figure, about “choice.” It gave an unsurprising result:

Moaddel: The bottom line is that there is no significant difference in dress-style preferences between men and women, except in Pakistan where men prefer more conservative styles. Men and women, however, differ on the issue of a woman’s right to dress as she wishes. Women are more strongly in favor of this statement than men across the seven countries. People with a university education are also more supportive of women’s choice (except in Saudi Arabia).

And there’s this interesting sidelight:

We also conducted the survey in Iran and Syria. However, the data from Iran were corrupt – pretty much fabricated — and therefore rejected. In Syria, by the time the pilot study was completed, the civil war was intensifying and it was too dangerous to carry out the survey there.

In Iran the people in charge of the survey basically made up responses. They completed a few hundred questionnaires and then basically cut and pasted the rest. We used a program that tries to find identical responses. On 100 variables, we found several hundred identical responses. It would be unheard of if even two were identical. They were very bad at cheating. We got a partial refund.

Moaddel also discusses the marked discrepancy between the high percentage of Saudis (47%) who think women should dress as they wish and the 82% who think that three three most conservative forms of dress are the most appropriate. But I’ll let you read his answer at the site.

Bottom line: Even in countries where there are no legal dress codes, both men and women favor veiling—but I think the women’s answers (given that many were interviewed in the room with their husbands) are an overestimate. And in no country did more than 56% of respondents think that women should be able to choose her own style of clothing.  These countries have a long way to go!


  1. Bill
    Posted October 1, 2016 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    ” And in no country did more than 56% of respondents think that woman should be able to choose her own style of clothing.”

    I think you meant womEn there.

  2. Rob
    Posted October 1, 2016 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    I formerly attended a church that required women to wear dresses to all church functions. Outside of church, most women wore pants. I wonder how many would have said that dresses were “voluntary”.

  3. Saul Sorrell-Till
    Posted October 1, 2016 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    I don’t mean to be disrespectful but the third from the left in that row of photos of Muslim women – I couldn’t help but hear the words “He’s not the messiah…” drift into my mind. Many many apologies.

    • Kevin
      Posted October 1, 2016 at 9:03 pm | Permalink

      I just saw your post…you are not alone.

  4. Randall Schenck
    Posted October 1, 2016 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

    Hard to choose between depressing and disgusting. They should require the men to dress in number 4. Just try a week of that. Looks like what they wear for Olympic skating.

  5. Ken Kukec
    Posted October 1, 2016 at 6:50 pm | Permalink

    Good for the 3% in Saudi Arabia who had the brass gonads to vote for #6. Those are the folks we need to make common cause with.

  6. Posted October 1, 2016 at 8:45 pm | Permalink

    I just wish the Palestinians living in Israel and the ones living in the occupied territories had also been polled, including (perhaps especially) Hannan Ashrawi. Then, let all the Palestinians in that same geographic range read all the result. And then, ask them if they still want a Muslim government over what they call Palestine.

  7. Kevin
    Posted October 1, 2016 at 9:02 pm | Permalink

    No. 3 looks like Brian’s mom…..”He’s not the Messiah!”

  8. Hempenstein
    Posted October 1, 2016 at 11:35 pm | Permalink

    These countries have a long way to go!

    From my perspective, Egypt, anyway, doesn’t have a long way to go, it has a long way to go back. In my highschool, in Northern Virginia in the mid-60s, we had an Egyptian substitute teacher, Mrs. Habib. Especially for a substitute teacher, she was quite elegant. I think her husband was a diplomat. I dated her daughter a bit, too. There was nothing about the way they dressed other than #6.

  9. zackoz
    Posted October 2, 2016 at 12:29 am | Permalink

    What is slightly surprising (only slightly) is that many of these surveys entirely leave out Southeast Asia, notably Indonesia, the country with the world’s largest Muslim population. When we think of Islam, we tend to think only of the Middle East.

    I don’t know how the survey would run in Indonesia. Use of the “jelbab” (roughly no 4) has increased hugely in the past 40 years or so, but a fair number – especially in the cities – still leave their hair uncovered.

    One reason my above-mentioned surprise was only slight is that Indonesia, despite its numbers, doesn’t really pull its weight internationally in Muslim circles (i.e., doesn’t have much intellectual influence, even on fellow Muslim countries).

    • nicky
      Posted October 2, 2016 at 1:58 am | Permalink

      Pertinent observations. You beat me to it.
      I’d also be curious to see what Muslims in
      Muslim-minority countries think.

  10. geckzilla
    Posted October 2, 2016 at 7:10 am | Permalink

    I wonder what a similar poll featuring women’s feet with different shoe styles for Western countries would say. I’ve long felt that my feet are socially oppressed. Yeah, I know, it’s nothing compared to whole body garb, but I feel like I have just a taste when forced to choose shoes. Either hobble yourself in uncomfortable hunks of junk for the sex appeal and clickity clack or don’t bother going into any type of job that requires business apparel. I dread weddings and avoid all upscale social events I can.

    Imagine the inertia we have in place against even adding a simple layer of padding (thick enough to be functional) to the sides of dress shoes for women and doing away with heels. There is an odd dichotomy of both power and submission to the high heel.

  11. Posted October 3, 2016 at 8:25 am | Permalink

    I asked this in another thread but got no answer, and it’s more appropriate for this one.

    How do Muslim women in countries where they are legally allowed to wear whatever they like choose how covered to be? And, more interesting to me, how do they justify not going all the way to niqab or burqa since the idea is that more covering is more modest, with modesty the ultimate goal.

    I suspect it has to do with what mode of covering family members and peers choose, which makes the whole thing seem less about sincere efforts at modesty and more about conformity.

  12. Posted October 5, 2016 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    The niqab makes you look like a terrorist and covered women is sexist

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