Friday, October 20, 2006

Veiled faces

The biggest issue at the moment in Britain seems to be the integration of muslim communities to "mainstream" population. The threat of home-bred terrorism materialised in the 7/7 attacks, and ever since then everyone has been balancing on a tight rope between prejudice and safety, tolerance and segregation.

Just like many times before, as the discussion moves from abstract principles to concrete proposals, the focus is be turned to something relatively irrelevant, but visible. This time it's the veils some muslim women wear. They come in many forms, but the discussion is now about the niqab, the full veil that covers everything but the eyes. There was a big controversy in France a few years back about veils in public schools, and now the issue is being hotly debated here. Jack Straw, the speaker of the commons and former foregn secretary opened the game by insisting that people who attend his surgeries at his constituency office will need to reveal their faces. Other ministers soon showed support, Tony Blair for instance admitted that he thought the veil is a sign of separation and thus it is understandable that it will make other people feel uncomfortable. One substitute teacher was suspended for refusing to remove her niqab when teaching English, and the school claimed this was depriving the pupils of proper education, as seeing the mouth when learning languages is essential. The court supported her, awarded her damages for victimisation and instructed the school to remove the suspension.

Here's my 5 pence to the discussion. Perceiving faces is special. We have specialised brain regions for perceiving faces, and latest research shows that so do chimps. Infants show preference for faces over other shapes very early. In a way, one could say that faces have a prioritised shortcut in our perception, just like human voice does, and all this is part of our fine-tuned primacy for social relations and sociality. We are social by nature and nurture, and our faces are the most significant part of the system of communication and mutual understanding we have. Hiding your face is a very strong statement, as it renders all these systems obsolete. Darwin was a frontrunner on this field as well. In his 1904 book, 'The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals', he drafted a theory about emotions, their links to physical states, and how they are communicated via postures and facial expressions. He drew similarities between animals and humans, but also showed differences. Paul Ekman followed up with this work, and even today many psychologiests still use the same set of faces in their emotion studies that Ekman used in his ground-breaking studies. (BTW, you should check out the new edition of Darwin's EEMA, which is annotated by Ekman - fascinating read).

Also, it is no coincidence that the Big Thing in artificial intelligence at the moment is expression ' of emotions. The Japanese have done this for ages, their idea of 'kansei', or emotional engineering, has given them the lead in AI and interactive bots. Human communication and interaction is not just about exchanging information, large part of it is about emotions, expressions, and so called phatic communication, keeping the channels open, ensuring that the two conversants are "on the same page". Facial expressions, nods, grunts etc. are important when determining if the other has understood what we are saying and we can then move on in the discussion.

I'm not saying that there is scientific proof that you cannot communicate properly with a veiled person. I'm just saying that it is not a wonder that people feel they are lacking a dimension when talking to a veiled person. It's rather like discussing with someone over a telephone, and we all know there's a difference. I haven't ever tried to communicate with someone with a veil, so I don't personally know how much is missing. Also, I need to emphasise that to understand the problem is not the same as to agree with the proposed means to overcome it. Also, I see a huge difference between asking a muslim woman employed by a publicly run school to reveal her face to the pupils she is teaching and the request by "random" men to remove it in front of them. The first is reasonable and can be enforced, the latter should only be seen as a kind request which the women should be allowed to turn down. Common sense and sensibility, one would think.

Personally I feel that the full veils, niqabs and burkhas, could be banned from those holding public jobs, and schools could have the right to ban them from their pupils. Headscarfs and various other kinds of "modest" dressing up on the other hand should be accepted, even though some people would like to go so far as to forbid all kinds of religious symbolism. Sikhs wear their turbans and that's fine (even the armed forces give them the provision to do so), some catholic nuns wear their habits, which again is fine (understandably no need for the army to say anything about this :-) ), and some muslims wear headscarfs, which again should be ok, just as is jewish people wearing their bangles or kipas. I think freedom of religion should mean that you can accommodate to both the customs of your faith, and the customs of the society at large. But there seems to be a need to draw line somewhere. It's the uncomfortable difficulty of drawing the line that has put people off, and so instead made them favour the full ban of any religious symbols. One BA flight attendant was forbidden to wear a minute cross visibly. Political correctness gone mad, I think, and any full ban will just propome segregation, and make integration impossible.

I realise in the case of the veil there is a problem for some people, as they see the hijab as a sexist thing, a form of oppression, and I recognise the need for everyone to give in and help finding a middle ground. For instance, I am not fully comfortable with the full veil either, as I resent the notion of being stereotyped an being a sexual predator jus for being a man. The origins of the hijab are of course in Quran, a book I know precious little about, but what I've understood from my friend Wikipedia, the idea is that as a muslim you (men and women) shouldn't dress so that it draws the sexual attention of the opposite sex. Again, times and fashion changes, and what is needed for drawing sexual attention with it. What was considered modest a century ago would be overdoing it nowadays. While I wouldn't mind someone getting some sense to the heads of those young girls that go around wearing practically nothing, or those boys who go around playing pimps and gangstas and groping their own crotches, I also don't accept the notion that the only way to hide from my or anyone else's predatory eyes is to wear a burkha. We need more communication, not more walls, not even as thin as silk, to prevent it.

(Pic by Jon Heras and Lakshmi Harihar,

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