The headlines are screaming again about burkas. In the UK, a candidate for the leadership of the UK Independence Party wants to prohibit face veils in public. Terrorist attacks in Germany have spurred calls for a ban there, too.
In France, seaside towns tried to ban “burkinis” and Nicolas Sarkozy, the former president who is eying another bid for office, wants to crack down on veils in universities.
Politicians’ claims of responding to security threats are scarcely credible. There are a thousand ways to explode a bomb. In none of the major attacks in Europe have the perpetrators worn burkas. Since the French banned face-covering in public places in 2010, attacks have actually increased.
The controversy is not about security but rather symbolism. To many Westerners, veiled women seem off-putting, hostile or alien to our values. Yet all sorts of people in modern public spaces look off-putting, hostile and alien to our values. If those are to be our criteria for imposing bans, the police will be busy indeed.
When the French introduced their ban, the government cited, among other reasons, the importance of reciprocal exposure of faces. That was hardly a knock-down argument. In Paris, as in London, you can navigate oceans of faces without reciprocally interacting with a single one. You’ll scarcely take two seconds to notice the uncovered faces, so why ban the covered ones?
Still, it would be wrong to conclude that face coverings should be admitted in all circumstances. We need something more nuanced than the all-or-nothing approaches. Universities offer examples of where burkas do and do not pose problems.
Many lecture theatres resemble urban centres. Students stomp in and out, noticed neither by their instructor nor by each other. For the lecturer who needs to explain cellular photosynthesis or atomic half-life, it may matter little whether the auditorium seats 30 or 3,000, or whether one is present at all. Students can easily watch a taped lecture months later, thousands of miles away. They can wrap themselves in a dozen veils or can sit at their computers stark naked. The lecturers may not feel that those topics require the study of individual opinions.
But other lecturers may seek models of communication whereby students interact not as individual data absorbers but as fully fledged citizens. Those lecturers must retain the prerogative to insist on facial exposure when they launch discussions on themes illustrative of citizens’ self-government, such as reintroducing the death penalty or legalising hard drugs.
One aim of such discussions is to examine strengths and weaknesses of claims that might arise. Another, however, is to create situations different from isolated automatons tweeting behind computer screens. Imagine people chatting around a table in front of a one-way mirror, knowing that they may be subject to observation, with an observer perhaps even participating through a microphone. The conversation may be identical in content to a more usual one, yet it would not be the same.
Yes, people can utter words through face coverings. But that does not demonstrate the secondary role of the face within interpersonal dynamics. The lecturer may want students to exchange views not merely as individuals but on a “town hall” model, interacting not only through word but also through gesture, such that the face becomes central. If facial observation were insignificant in such communication, no one would ever have invented the burka.
Some educators oppose bans on veils for practical reasons. For psychologist Sandi Mann, a ban might mean that “some students would no longer access higher education and that concerns me more”. And what about, say, burn victims with medical or psychological needs to cover up? Should they be excluded too?
Of course not. No model of communication can cover every scenario. The facial-inclusion model aims not merely at the face’s physical exposure. It aims at students who want such exchanges for their intrinsic value.
No model of communication is perfectly inclusive. Lecturers banning the veil do indeed privilege unveiled students. But those who admit the veil grant the privilege of unobserved observation to the veiled. Each includes and excludes in different ways.
A necessary pedagogical discretion for lecturers to create interactive environments may indeed mean that some devout students end up with fewer options. But that’s not unusual. Many students must order their priorities in ways that will limit their opportunities. For kosher students, dietary requirements may reduce the range of universities they can attend. Animal welfare supporters may shun departments involved with animal experiments.
The university can facilitate some students’ personal choices by offering prayer facilities, special menus and, above all, the freedom of expression (or what’s left of it) to continue to debate these differences. The public university must not, however, accommodate religion to the extent of trumping what some lecturers will rightly view as a vital mode of student interaction.