On when a face veil is and isn’t a problem in lectures

Some lecturers will rightly encourage forms of student interaction that are impossible for those covering their faces, Eric Heinze argues

September 8, 2016
James Fryer illustration (8 September 2016)
Source: James Fryer

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.

Eric Heinze is professor of law and humanities at Queen Mary University of London. His book Hate Speech and Democratic Citizenship is published by Oxford University Press.


Print headline: Show, no show? When a face veil is and isn’t a problem

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Reader's comments (11)

The author writes: '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.' As someone who has discussed both of these in my classes, and conducted brilliant discussions with veiled students (at Queen Mary University of London, no less), I cannot for the life of me see why I need to see a student's nose, or cheeks, or forehead, or eyes, or whatever, in order to discuss these topics. I'm genuinely lost as to how this equation has been formulated.
Thank you for your message. Strictly practical criteria as to what are objectively necessary elements to achieve communication are precisely the criteria I aim to avoid in this piece. For example, I am entirely aware that, on occasions when I've engaged in online discussion, I may well have interacted in entirely constructive and (for me) enlightening ways with veiled women. By extension, I am aware that a classroom discussion might well be construed as nothing but volleys of words. I would entirely respect a lecturer taking that view. It is a valid model of communication, which is why my piece specifically declines to advocate any absolute ban (and proposes no "equation"). My view is simply that there is no single, ideal model of communication, and another lecturer might well wish to adopt a model which does not entail only volleys of words. Regards, EH
There are so many things wrong with this piece, including the fact that the THE have given a white man a platform on which to dictate what women (and mainly women racialized as non-white) should and shouldn't wear. As if the sector isn't already hostile enough to gendered and racialized bodies. And as for the so-called "logic" of this argument - is the author suggesting that one couldn't have a sophisticated and meaningful conversation about issues like the death penalty or legalising hard drugs over the telephone? Or by email? What about journal articles? I've never been asked by an editor to include images or descriptions of the facial expressions that accompany my thoughts and opinions. This piece is ludicrous, ignorant, and offensive.
Dear PettS. Thank you for your posting. You raise several issues which require attention, as one hears and reads them very frequently. As to your identity-political point, I both know personally and have corresponded with (and of course have read the writings of) ethnic minority Muslim women who propose far more absolute bans -- in all public places and in all public life -- than what I advocate here. What, then is the status of those women's views? Are those women's identities inauthentic and therefore their views invalid, such that a Muslim woman can have only one view or only one very particular range of views? Or, to the contrary, are their views valid not on any grounds of principle or policy, but solely because of their identities? As to what is strictly necessary for communication to occur (and why I avoid any such model of strict necessity), please see my reply to the previous poster. Best wishes, EH
Surely part of the rationale for interactive teaching in lectures is to help students develop the interpersonal skills they need to accomplish everyday professional tasks. In contemporary London / Britain / the rest of the world that's sometimes going to involve communicating with someone who's wearing a face veil. It's part of everyday cultural competence and what would be much more of a problem in lectures is veiled students having to make a choice between unveiling or not attending / taking the course (limiting their own participation and the diversity of perspectives in the room as a whole). The last thing universities should be doing on this issue is adding to the social pressure that veiled women are already under as they negotiate how they participate in public space.
I much prefer to see students' faces... but would not presume to tell anyone what they ought to wear. When teaching in FE - with small classes, maybe 20 or so, I have argued that I'd like students to feel 'at home' and hence comfortable enough to unveil, but still respect their choice as to whether or not they do so. Teaching the computer ethics module, I have sometimes used dress as a cue when talking about how the individual's beliefs affect their moral outlook - beginning with the fact that I am a practising Christian, then saying "... and making a wild guess, perhaps you are Muslim" to someone in a hijab.
Here is the acid test. Ask these people if they were in government would they insist women wore the hijab, veil or Burka. See what happens next. Then decide what is in fact happening. The fact is nobody in academia has yet bothered to apply the acid test. Go on lets see what happens.
Personally I would say if I cannot choose to wear what I want in an Islamic country why should I be so tolerant of it here in my country, what am I stupid. I think this is called reciprocation. I have sister in laws in Iran who would love to get rid of the ridiculous head gear. So for them and on their behalf ABSOLUTELY NO TO ISLAMIC DRESS. Freedom is essential. Freedom to girls who are FORCED into learned behaviour of using ISLAMIC DRESS CODES. When is academia going to bother to research that or are they going to turn blind eyes.
Would your "sister in laws (sic) in Iran" be in favour of banning "the ridiculous head gear", or simply of being allowed not to wear it? If the former, they, like you, miss the point of the debate. Most of us learned in the playground if not at our mothers' knees the weakness of reciprocity as a defence. This is about is the freedom of the individual. If you believe in that you should advocate it irrespective of time and place. Individual lecturers should not have the right - or indeed the responsibility - to decide what may or may not be worn in their classes.
This reply is to cbakerhull. RE: "The last thing universities should be doing on this issue is adding to the social pressure that veiled women are already under as they negotiate how they participate in public space." That proposition seems far from obvious. As a student population I assume legal adults (or, very rarely, emancipated minors) attending through full personal consent. I further assume solely those instances of face-covering elected through full personal consent. As I mentioned in the article, any number of personal choices may clash with university practices, such as animal rights activists repelled by university animal experiments or Kosher students lacking adequate catering and facilities. Never has it been suggested that universities "add to the pressures" of such students by declining to accommodate their choices. To the contrary, the essence of a religious choice often lies in the sacrifices made for it and not in society's obligation to accommodate it. I certainly agree that universities should not go out of their way to obstruct the choices of religious students willy-nilly (nor do I see that being done in any British context), but I by no means agree that lecturers thereby abandon essential prerogatives of modelling classroom interactions.
"The essence of a religious choice often lies in the sacrifices made for it and not in society's obligation to accommodate it." I completely agree with Eric Heinze. Religion purports to offer a ready-made alternative to having to create your own set of principles autonomously and navigate life in society asking yourself, at every turn, what is right and what is wrong. It is a choice of convenience and abdication of responsibility. Universities are places where the human faculties to exercise this autonomous judgement are trained, strengthened, prepared. They ought to provide a "safe space" for secularism rather than pander to and be ruled by choices of religion. In protest against lack of spaces for prayer, a couple of years ago QM students staged prayers all around the univerisity, from office corridors to toilet entrances. The university barely had capacity for teaching rooms, and here it was, being protested against for not providing rooms to pray. What do students go to university for, really?