PSA: Read the Surveys and Report Responsibly Damnit
On December 18th 2013, the University of Michigan Center for Social Research released a final report on its findings in a comparative study looking at the social and political developments in Tunisia since the revolution. Developments and attitudes in Tunisia were compared with developments and attitudes in six other Muslim majority countries. The report, entitled "The Birthplace of the Arab Spring: Values and Perceptions of the Tunisian Public in a Comparative Perspective," concludes in its executive summary that the findings "indicate the presence of an expanding social basis and a cultural space that would permit the growth of secular politics, religious moderation, and religious tolerance in the country."
Despite the rich array of findings to pick from, including many which would tickle the fancy of liberal sensitivities, the survey was reduced completely to an arguably inconsequential finding: opinions on women's dress. On Wednesday January 8th, the Pew Research Center published a piece on the study, highlighting 'how people in Muslim countries prefer women to dress in public' as a particularly "important issue in the Muslim world." The article (assisted with a great chart), written by Jacob Poushter, makes it appear as though the comparative study was dedicated heavily and primarily to 'Muslim attitudes' towards the ideal dress code of Muslim women in Muslim countries. So. Much. Muslim.
Not long after, the SEO hungry birds of the internet caught wind of the story and swooped down to collect their prey: a story about how those crazy Middle Easterners (note: not all countries were 'Middle Eastern') have crazy ideas about 'their' women. The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, Huffington Post, Slate, Wallstreet Journal, Global Post and Business Insider were amongst the few big publications that seemed to take cue from the Pew article, ignoring the actual contents and findings of the survey itself - with some even referring to the survey itself as a poll on 'female Muslim dress'. Headlines of almost every article are a variant of 'Here's How People in Muslim Countries Think Women Should Dress'.
As usual, just fantastic reporting on everything and all things 'Muslim.'
Islam is a critical-thinking blind spot. It's no secret that when it comes to any story on Islam, Muslims and gender/sex, we erupt into some sort of Victorian fury of alarm and righteousness that subdues rational conversation, nuance and, well, fact-checking. Phallic fatwas, Tunisian sex jihad warriors and men too hot for Saudi Arabia are examples of some of the most viral stories from the past two years that were proven to actually be completely false.
Surveys, however, are a little more 'dangerous' in terms of creating dangerous civilizational caricatures. Surveys, specifically those from respected research centers, hold a certain level of authority in their presentation of "facts" (Pew published its discussion of the findings under the section "Fact Tank"), or empirical evidence, and explanations of 'thorough' methodologies. Surveys that involve Muslims take on an especially malignant role in creating what Columbia professor Lila Abu-Lughod refers to as 'IslamLand': a figment of our collective consciousness of a distant land of Islam and Muslims to which no ounce of diversity and empathy is afforded.
In April 2013, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public life published the results of a survey it had conducted of almost 38,000 Muslims from 39 countries across Europe, Asia, and Africa. All those surveyed were interviewed in person and in over 80 languages. Despite the extremely, again, rich discoveries from the survey, headlines became preoccupied with views on 'Sharia' and gender, painting the same old archaic image of an unchanging global Muslim population. The survey itself was not without a dearth of problems (including the entire premise for the existence of the survey) - yet the image its actual results provided of 'IslamLand' was drastically different than the one created by hit-hungry journalists.
And much in the same way the April 2013 Pew survey report was presented in a glaringly unnuanced and shallow way so, too, has the University of Michigan report: as a bi-weekly reminder of the shivering patriarchy in the 'Muslim world.'
It's especially disturbing - yet unsurprising given it is just a dirty habit now - how the question of 'Muslim opinion on women's dress in public' (part and parcel of a series of questions to determine attitudes towards social individualism) received no critical treatment in the publications that reduced the survey to just that one finding.
We assume that dress codes and perceptions of chastity based on style of dress is only a problem "over there", in 'IslamLand'. The reality is that if given the opportunity, plenty of people in the West would have something to say about the way that women dress and what it might symbolize. Case in point: the discourse on rape in the United States; many do not seem to find reason for hesitation when it comes to blaming women's choice of clothing in their sexual assault and harassment. But when was the last time we saw similar headlines about a survey done to determine American attitudes towards women's public dress?
And why are journalists not interested in exploring the other findings? In contextualizing the results they do focus on? In coverage of both the Pew and University of Michigan surveys discussed above, findings that showed significant trends in that amorphous 'Muslim world' towards science, modernity, democracy and secularism were and are largely ignored. An honest and contextualized exploration of either survey could have wielded a nuanced and myth-busting discussion. Instead, agendas of sensationalism and comfortable opinion prevailed again.
It really isn't hard to read surveys, but there seems to be something very special about news stories about Muslims that makes everyone freak the hell out and forget how to read.