Lifting the veil on a hidden concern

December 16, 2005

Keekok Lee and Mary Searle-Chatterjee ask if women should be allowed to cover up in class

An international bank asks you to write a reference for a student in your seminar group. You hesitate. Her essay marks are quite good, and she hasn't missed a session. She sometimes expresses interesting opinions. So what's the problem?

Well, you've never seen her face because she is fully veiled (the headscarf doesn't present the same problems). You presume she is the person who turns up every week and that it was she who handed in the essay and sat the exam. You've heard her voice, but you don't know whether she was smiling, frowning or sneering when she spoke. You have only a limited sense of how she interacts with other students.

This is a new scenario at university level. It is not hypothetical. Amir Barik, programme leader for Islamic and Middle Eastern studies at Manchester Metropolitan University, cites the case where one of the students he taught was not veiled when he interviewed her. After six months of teaching, he entered the lecture room to find a fully veiled woman. "I had no idea who she was. I said, 'Who are you?' She identified herself and I asked her to agree not to wear her veil in the classroom. I pointed out that it was more to do with culture than with Islam." She kept on wearing the veil, though.

We talked to half a dozen academics who teach fully veiled women. All expressed some unease about the absence of non-verbal communication, but none wanted to be identified. Their comments range from: "Veiled students can look at other people, but others can't look at them. It's one-sided"; to "If you can't see people's lips, it's harder to hear what they are saying"; "It's been all right so far, but I haven't had to write a reference yet. That might be a problem"; and "It is difficult to distinguish between and address veiled students."

Several lecturers worry that these students may be inhibiting their own learning. "One-to-one tuition isn't so effective," says one. "The lecturer can't pick up on non-verbal feedback. How do I know if she's bored or not grasping something?" comments another.

The invasion of Iraq appears to have contributed to the sudden increase in the number of veiled students. Most have local British accents. It is unlikely that their mothers and grandmothers cover their faces. In South Asia, the region from which most of their families originate, most Muslim women simply wear a loose head covering.

Wearing a veil in Britain today is not usually due to traditional regional culture. Nor is it usually a sign of the oppression of women, though it may be so. It is often an assertion of a new identity chosen by a woman herself. As one student in London commented: "It shows I'm not ashamed to be a Muslim. I'm proud of it."

It is not easy to know in any particular case what this badge of identity means. It may be a statement of religious pride, anti-imperial sentiment, class status or a claim to moral and religious superiority. The face may be covered to give freedom from unwanted attention. Sometimes it seems to be just a trend, since students cannot always explain why they adopt the veil. Muslims in different periods and places have disagreed about how women should dress. Interesting case studies are presented by the historian Leila Ahmed in Women and Gender in Islam and in the sociological collection edited by Linda Arthur, Undressing Religion .

Far from being a sign of traditionalism, covering the face in Britain is more likely to indicate a rejection of tradition. A colleague who teaches Islam has the impression that this is a "campus phenomenon". He has noticed that some students have adopted the veil in their second year and then abandoned it 12 months later. Imams have told him that it is mostly students in their teens and early twenties who cover their faces.

Academics who are uneasy about veiling argue that it could lead to further problems. There has been a case at Manchester University where a veiled student refused to speak to male lecturers in seminars. It is possible to ignore one student, but it would be more difficult if the numbers were larger.

Some people argue that it is a human right to wear a face veil at university. But George Gheverghese Joseph, a barrister, says the human rights of one individual are never absolute. "You cannot assert your own human rights if, as a result, it infringes on the rights of other individuals, including their security. The claim that recognising the right of one individual has restricted the ability of another individual to perform a particular task as efficiently as s/he could has been used in court."

More provocatively, one wonders if it might be a human right for a student to insist on speaking with their back to the lecturer. Would the lecturer then have the human right to refuse to respond?

Many would argue that the veil contravenes basic understandings of what a university is for - intellectual interaction between students and between students and lecturers - and should therefore be banned. This would probably be counterproductive. Banning something is a sure way of making students want to do it. That at least has been the experience of Turkey. On the other hand, complete permissiveness presents problems too. Malaysia, another predominantly Muslim country, now insists on faces being checked in examinations. The ramifications are huge. For example, universities that do not take the trouble to check could be sued by disappointed employers. On the other hand, resentment could arise if veiled students are the only ones exempted from facial identification checks when entering and leaving buildings, or when using travel cards on trains.

Perhaps universities should think about forming a national committee to look into the matter more fully and to develop a consistent code of practice. They would need to think about how you can assess the character of a fully veiled person and matters such as seminar interaction. Maybe some students, including veiled women, would be entitled to only limited references, as opposed to the fuller character references asked for by many employers. All students would have to be informed of this before taking up places at university. Women who still feel committed to segregation and veiling could then make their own choice about whether they will attend university or opt for a correspondence course.

Keekok Lee is a philosopher who writes on philosophical aspects of science and environmental policy. Mary Searle-Chatterjee is an anthropologist who writes on religion, gender and status in South Asia.

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