Wednesday, June 3, 2009
Chaptette 9: Significant Differences?
A quick (but highly relevant) statistical lesson: When we compare groups statistically, we usually want to learn whether the differences (or similarities) are "statistically significant" and 'substantively significant". Statistical significance concerns whether the differences are "real" -- that is, whether the groups are actually different or not. Substantive significance involves whether the differences are large enough to care about, or small enough to be trivial. So differences can be statistically significant, but substantively trivial, and so forth.
When I arrived in Doha, I assumed (probably like most Americans) that Islamic women (and also men, but more on this later) were really different from American women, at least in terms of their dress. American women are "free" to wear whatever they want, while Qatari women are "restricted" to wear abaya/shayla (black robe and veil; I might not have the terms quite right). Freedom is good, right? Score one for the US, right?
Now, I'm not so sure, for a couple reasons. First, pretty much everyone in both countries will agree that individuals shouldn't be able to wear anything they want anywhere they want. Outside of Arkansas (sorry, neighbors!) we probably think that daisy dukes, tube tops, wife beaters, spandex, etc, are not appropriate for wearing to weddings and funerals. Second, almost everyone agrees that individuals should be able to express their individuality through their clothes.
So Americans and Qataris agree that there should be some standards about appropriate dress and that individuals should be individuals. The differences are more about what standards and what individuality are appropriate.
Americans have more freedom of clothing expression but, really, we all know what is expected of us and most of us conform to it. My Georgetown students can basically wear whatever they want to class, but the range is really quite small: jeans, tops/shirts, sneakers/flipflops, etc. Georgetown students clearly have an informal uniform, and almost everyone complies with it. I can't speak so much for white collar women, but for white collar men we express our unique selves with minor variations in the print of our neckties and the width of our pinstripes.
Ethnic Qatari women do generally wear abaya/shayla in public -- yes, the uniform is all black -- but the variation in pattern and ornamentation is virtually infinite. The stock pictures I've posted here give the idea. And the men -- wearing all white -- also have the widest variety of minor details that express individuality. Kind of like American men and their neckties.
I'd feel different about this if Qatari men could wear whatever they wanted and Qatari women had to wear abaya. But since both men and women wear culturally appropriate clothing, it feels pretty egalitarian to me (but I'm only talking about clothes here).
And in conclusion -- yes, I have to bring it back to the beginning -- the differences in dress, and the attitudes about clothing between Americans and Qataris are statistically significant, but I think substantively pretty small.