Are non-hijabis “scantily clad”?

Some social scientific studies, such as a recent study by well-known Princeton psychologist, Dr. Susan Fiske, have been misleadingly used to promote the use of the hijab. Misrepresenting these studies – acknowledged by their authors to require further investigation – does little to serve such a cause, nor does it fairly portray the reality of Muslims (and non-Muslims) who choose to dress without it.
A recent article on IslamOnline entitled Study: Men Objectify Scantily Clad Women, used a recent study by well-known Princeton psychologist, Dr. Susan Fiske, to promote modest clothing. I am familiar with Dr. Fiske’s work, and I couldn’t help but question whether IslamOnline was misrepresenting the study in order to promote the hijab.

To be clear, I am not denouncing hijab; I am simply hoping to demonstrate one instance of problematic and misleading use of social scientific studies. Amel Abdullah, the author of the piece, begins her article by describing the study and explaining the three main results. She reports that:

• Images of scantily clad women were better remembered by heterosexual male participants
• When the male participants viewed scantily-clad women, areas of the brain associated with “tool use, hand manipulation, and the urge to take action” were activated
• Men who scored high on hostile sexism thought of these scantily-clad women as less human.

Immediately after presenting these findings, she starts discussing the role of the hijab and how it protects women. She makes a leap from images of women in bikinis to the hijab, which she describes as “religiously mandated modest dress that covers the shape of the body and includes the headscarf or veil.” This leap is highly inappropriate and illogical. Let me explain why.
I was able to obtain a lay summary of the study from Dr. Fiske and after comparing the lay summary to Abdullah’s article, found Abdullah’s work to be biased and her use of the study findings inappropriate.

To begin with, Abdullah’s terminology is very problematic and manipulates the results to suit her argument. The lay summary and all media outlet reports are clear that the four types of images used were of fully clothed men and women, and scantily clad men and women. Specifically, the images of scantily clad women were of women in bikinis. If one ignores the way in which Dr. Fiske and her research team operationally defined* “scantily clad” one risks misunderstanding the results. And this is what Abdullah has done.

IslamOnline explains (emphasis mine):

When psychologist Susan Fiske and a team of researchers at Princeton University performed MRI brain scans on heterosexual men who viewed a series of images showing both scantily clad and fully clothed men and women, they found that the men had an unmistakable response to women wearing less clothing.

The less they wore, the more likely it was for the premotor cortex and the posterior middle temporal gyrus to light up. These are the areas of the brain associated with tool use, hand manipulation, and the urge to take action.

It should not be “women wearing less clothing” but rather “women wearing bikinis.” “Bikini” is clear. Less clothing is unclear. Less than what? We know that a bikini is a two-piece swimsuit. It usually exposes the midriff, legs, arms, etc. Additionally, saying that “the less they wore triggered these responses” implies that various levels of coverage, or various stages of undress, were presented to the participants in the study.

This wording alters the realities of the study completely. Various stages of undress were not presented to the participants. Only two levels of clothing were presented. There were no measurements of reactions at varying levels of clothing. IslamOnline’s use of the phrase “less clothing” is deceptive and twists the findings of the study, which showed pictures of women in a very specific form of “less clothing” – the bikini.

The Daily Princetonian explains (emphasis mine):

Fiske’s team used an MRI machine to scan the brains of the students while they viewed a series of photographs of men and women, some of whom were fully clothed and others of whom wore only swimsuits.

The pictures of bikini-clad women activated brain regions associated with objects or “things you manipulate with your hands,” Fiske said.

The lay summary states (emphasis mine):

…heterosexual men, in a surprise memory test, were significantly better at recognizing bikini-clad female bodies (with heads removed), than they were at recognising any of the other three types of images or any kind of faces.

The researchers’ operational definition* of “fully clothed” was not provided. However, in my correspondence with Dr. Fiske, she mentioned that the effects of objectifying women were not seen for women in traditional Western attire. Therefore, my assumption is that “fully clothed” for this study was a woman wearing Western clothing, which is not the full hijab. Therefore, women who dress like the average North American/Westerner were not objectified by the male participants.

IslamOnline continues:

According to a lay summary of Fiske’s study provided to, when a man’s mentalizing network shuts down, this means he views sexualized women as “less human.”

The lay summary states:

As predicted, hostile sexism predicted less activation of otherwise reliable social cognition networks…in response to looking at bikini-clad women. This implicates more hostile attitudes in predicting deactivation of the mentalizing network, consistent with viewing sexualized women as less human.

Mentalizing is defined as “considering other people’s thoughts and feelings.” Therefore, men who held stronger hostile sexist** attitudes toward women were more likely to think of bikini-clad women as less human. Not all men and all women in any type of clothing.

Abdullah also speaks of Dr. Peter Glick’s study, in which he found that women in positions of power who wear provocative clothes at work may be less respected. However, within an American context, within which this study was conducted, what is “provocative”? What may be provocative in reference to full hijab is not going to be provocative in the average American context.

Abdullah goes on to describe the protective and mandatory nature of the hijab. Stating that the hijab protects women from unwanted sexual attention by using this study as proof is a stretch. Unfortunately, I think we all know women in full hijab who have been sexually harassed and/or assaulted. Using this study to prove its protective capabilities is deceptive. The current study found that images of women in bikinis were objectified, not images of women in pant suits, jeans and tank tops, professional skirts and blazers, and so on. In fact, as I mentioned earlier, average, non-hijab, Western-attired women were not objectified. Therefore, one need not wear full hijab to not be objectified.

Again, I am not arguing against the hijab. I am saying that using this psychological study to imply that any clothing short of the full hijab makes one vulnerable to objectification is nonsensical – not to mention highly offensive to women who do not wear the full hijab. Abdullah’s analysis suggests that any non-hijab-wearing woman is fair game for objectification, whereas all that Fiske’s study does is show that heterosexual men are somehow hard-wired to objectify women in bikinis.

If one wants to use psychological studies to prove one’s point, then one should at least choose a study that actually does prove the point. Abdullah’s use of early stage psychological studies, which the researchers have acknowledged require further investigation, only misuses findings which could have real and serious relevancies for other situations.

*An operational definition is defining a research concept, often a variable being measured, in such a way so as to enable others to independently measure the variable. This would mean one would have to define it in such as way to allow readers to understand exactly what the researcher means when she measures that variable. In this case “scantily clad” was defined as “bikini” so that we know exactly what was measured.

** Hostile sexism is a form of sexism conceptualized by Drs. Fiske and Glick. It is one of two forms sexism can take, with the other being benevolent sexism. Together the two concepts make up Ambivalent Sexism. Hostile sexism is the type of sexism most of us are familiar with – “Women are trying to get ahead of men,” “Women are trying to take our rights away,” etc. It’s usually hateful. Benevolent sexism sounds positive in tone but can also be seen to hold women back. “Only women have the special abilities to care for chidren therefore they must stay at home to take care of them,” “Women are too pure to be dealing with all those men out there so should stay inside the home.” etc. It usually places women on a pedestal.

An unedited version of this article was originally published at Muslimah Media Watch. Photo: See Wah Cheng via flickr under a Creative Commons license.
Sobia Ali is co-founder and co-editor of Muslim Lookout, a blog analyzing the representations of Muslims in Canadian media and pop culture. She is currently pursuing a PhD student in psychology. Her research interests include identity, acculturation, and psychological well-being of South Asians and Muslims raised in the West.


  • Anas Coburn says:

    Thanks for your post, hope you sent it to Islamonline as well. This sort of lay misappropriation of social scientific findings is all too common and I believe you do a service to us all by highlighting it.

    Even though you explicitly stated you were not arguing against hijab,  you may well now get hammered for arguing that modest dress short of hijab is just as acceptable as hijab … and while that may or may not be your position, you certainly did not make that argument in your post.

    It seems to me that Amel Abdullah’s article may simply be an illustration of the phenomenon by which people tend to take notice only of those data-points which confirm their pre-existing notions.

    As a practicing mental health clinician, I see this all the time. The whole approach called Narrative Therapy seeks to identify and deconstruct oppressive narratives, starting by pointing out exceptions to the dominant and oppressive narrative.

    My point is not that the practice of hijab is a marker of an oppressive narrative. Whatever stories we tell ourselves repeatedly about who we are and how our world works and how we relate to our Creator can become a reification of reality that in the end serves to oppress us. For me, a part of the wondrous gift we have been given in “La ilaha illa’ Llah” is that when we affirm this, we are acknowledging we must be careful not to take our mental constructs about how things are as a god.

  • muqarnas says:

    thanks for analyzing this article Sobia!  Please send it to IslamOnline, they Really need to read it. 

    The fact that the author used the vague phrase “less clothing” rather than “bikini-clad” is Pathetic and echos what i Constantly hear so many muslims say when talking about hijab – they always compare two extremes – the pious, pure, fully covered hijabi woman vs. the loose, immoral (read: Western) bikini-clad woman.  they conveniently leave out all the moderately dressed women to “prove” that hijab is necessary in order to avoid becoming a slut.  (a person can argue hijab is necessary, fine, but to imply that not wearing it is equal to being a slut is flat out Wrong).

    it’s a ridiculous comparison, because while hijab might be everyday dress for some muslim women, the bikini is in no way everyday dress for non-muslim women.  everyday dress for the latter looks more like pants and a shirt, more or less depending on what season, profession, and age group we’re talking about.  and like you said, the study showed that kind of dress didn’t provoke sexually objectifying feelings in the male participants. 

    I think the burqa vs. bikini comparison is incredibly problematic.  it’s polarizing and dehumanizing to women.  we don’t need imams shouting during khutbahs “we need to put our women in hijab!  do we want them looking like these street whores?”  to say that there’s only a choice between hijab and whoredom is a ridiculous construct.  not to mention demeaning to the majority of non-hijabi women who are perfectly decent, modest people.

    @Anas – great comments! esp. the last one

  • Sobia says:

    Thanks for your comments Anas and muqarnas. Sorry for my late response.


    “Even though you explicitly stated you were not arguing against hijab,  you may well now get hammered for arguing that modest dress short of hijab is just as acceptable as hijab … and while that may or may not be your position, you certainly did not make that argument in your post.”

    Luckily it seems I haven’t here, nor on Muslimah Media Watch where this was also published. However, I know there will be many Muslims, probably those who read Islam Online, who would be offended.

    By the way, I do believe that modest dress short of hijab is just as acceptable as hijab.


    “a person can argue hijab is necessary, fine, but to imply that not wearing it is equal to being a slut is flat out Wrong.”

    I agree. And not to mention absolutely insulting to Muslim women who do not wear the hijab for whatever reason.

    My worry with articles like Islam Online’s is that they create this inferior/surperior dichotomy. All of a sudden Muslim women are seen as pure and virginal and non-Muslim women are seen as whores. It creates divisions between communities, not to mention misperceptions. However, I believe this dichotomy can have a very negative effect on young women too. If you’re told you can either be fully covered in “proper” hijab or a be a “slut,” then I can imagine that would leave many women in an identity struggle.

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