MediaCurves conducted a study to examine popular perceptions of women who wear hijab, the headscarf. Here you can see two photos—one of a woman without hijab, and one of the same woman wearing hijab. Detailed results are available here (PDF).
I conducted ethnographic research with young American Muslim undergraduate women a few years ago (see my dissertation “Constructing Third Spaces: American Muslim Undergraduate Women’s Hybrid Identity Construction”). The results of this study match my research participants’ sense of how they were perceived—their double consciousness, to use W.E.B. DuBois’ phrase. They felt like people considered them “excessively” religious, even fanatical, certainly not “fun” or “hip,” and this was the case for women who wore hijab more than for women who did not.
According to the MediaCurves study, headscarves make you look less educated and, paradoxically, wealthier (this may reflect the general population’s assumptions regarding Muslims and Middle Easterners). It makes you look like more like a stay-at-home mom than a professional woman. Hijab also makes you look older and “more married” (which sucks when you are single and looking to get married). Not just that: it also turns you into a “devoted wife” and “good mother.”
With hijab, people assume you are more serious, less lively, less sociable, and more, well, grim (as my British academic adviser once half-joked). Sadly, however, you are also less trustworthy and less steady.
Interestingly, in the case of the woman in question, she was also more likely to be considered beautiful than she was without hijab. This might reflect Orientalist-influenced exoticization and eroticization.
And surprise, surprise—the people surveyed were more likely to desire the woman outside their own country than inside, or at least further away from their vicinity than if she did not wear hijab.
The same woman, with the same physiognomy, was regarded as an American if she did not wear hijab. With hijab, she became Middle Eastern. Without hijab, she could be a member of any one of several different faiths. With hijab she became a one-dimensional, foreign, boring, Muslim woman.
The magic that a mere square yard of fabric can effect.