What should women wear in public? That depends on how you ask

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Aaron Schachter: There's an image online that's generated some criticism, a few jokes, and in one case an entirely new visual. It shows the result of a survey conducted by the University of Michigan which asked residents of seven Muslim-majority countries how women should dress in public. What's an issue is how the survey was conducted, which was using visual cues. 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. The six styles range from a fully-covered woman in a burqa to the less-conservative hijab to a woman with no head covering of any type. The results - most people prefer that a woman completely cover her hair, but not necessarily her face. Lebanese satirist Karl Sharro, who blogs under the name "Karl reMarks" had a strong response to the survey. And, Karl, what was your immediate reaction when you saw this visually-conducted survey? Karl Sharro: I must admit my first reaction was I was slightly bemused, but also sort of wondered about the usefulness of that image and also there's a certain type of stereotyping I think. It's almost like putting Muslim women on a scale from one to six so to speak, from fully covered to not covered at all. Schachter: Obviously I'm not from the region, but I'm having trouble understanding what's wrong with a survey like this. The image we get in the west is essentially one the sort of six modes of dressing. Sharro: Fair enough I think for let's say an external observer, you get several depictions of women in the media or even through drama, but I think what I found, again, I don't want to say objectionable in the sense, I'm not here to censor anybody or say this is a form of imperialism that needs to stop. It's not so much that in as much I think it sheds light on a particular institutional way of regarding other cultures and other people. I think it's almost like looking at a catalog and saying which of these you prefer. Inherently that exercise is quite reductive. Now, I understand for academic and let's say scientific interests sometimes you have to do this, but you wonder within that context, by definition, by doing that selection process, you've already supplied some of the answers, so you've already created a distorted process. And I personally, I mean I wouldn't go out to limit anybody's choice in conducting this. Let me state very clearly that I'm all for academic freedom and all for people conducting all sorts of studies, but I wonder about what the usefulness of that is, considering that it already carries a lot of biases within it from the first step before you even went out and talked to anybody. Schachter: Now, Karl, you responded with your own survey and visual which we'll post online at PRI.org. Tell us about that. Sharro: It wasn't really my idea. It was pitched to me by a writer called Yusuf [??]. He said, because I do this type of visual spoofs a lot and I do get requests sometimes now online, basically what he said is, "I wonder what it would look like if someone were to do an equivalent survey of American women based on, " and here I think his interesting phrasing was, "Arab or Middle-Eastern stereotypes of American woman." And I thought, well, the most obvious stereotypes we associate with American - and they are admittedly stereotypes, that was the whole point of the exercise - is fast food, is money, is . . . Schachter: Cheerleader. Sharro: . . . the cheerleader images. Schachter: Yeah. Sharro: So they had to be very, very rude kind of rough stereotypes and I selected images of six women wearing, quite absurdly, like a hamburger hat or a hat which had dollar signs on it or a cheerleader image or someone wearing a cowboy hat, and then replicated visually exactly the way the image that was accompanied by the Michigan University study and then had the results distributed rather than my country by US states. So, for example, more people in Texas would prefer the woman wearing the cowboy hat, more people in New York would prefer the woman wearing the dollar signs on her head and so on and so forth. So that was a way basically of me visually spoofing the image and at the same time kind of saying that stereotypes work both ways. Schachter: Karl Sharro is known online by the name of his blog "Karl reMarks". He's also a practicing architect in London. And, Karl, always a pleasure to speak with you. Thanks so much for joining us. Sharro: Thank you, Aaron.