I hate to admit that it has taken me a long time to reach a place where I am okay with women wearing niqabs and burkas.
I recognize the apparent self-righteous in this statement, because I am one person who has not been on the Earth for as long as this tradition has been around, and so what does my view really matter? My only intention is to present my point of view, especially as I see so much opposition, particularly now in Europe with first the French banning the burka, and now the Danish.
It is hard for a non-Muslim (and even some Muslims) to not see these items of clothing as a symbol of oppression, and to even be quite sinister. The face is socially the most important part of a person’s body. It is crucial to be recognized by others, and is necessary for maximal integration into society. So many cues are taken from a person’s face so that others can understand what they are thinking and how they are feeling. And so when it is covered in public, everyone else loses that connection with the person, and it seems to send the message that this person is being prevented from connecting with the public world around them. For many, this willingness to live in a community with an unwillingness to share a key part of one’s identity is considered rude.
There is a part of the brain in the occipital lobe (primarily concerned with vision) called the fusiform gyrus. This part of the brain seems to be largely involved with facial recognition. Simply having this region in our brains suggests it is of deep evolutionary importance that we successfully identify faces, at least of close family and friends. Here, it must be recognized that the women wearing the niqab and burka do expose their face in private, and the mere presence of the fusiform gyrus is not itself an argument against wearing these facial coverings. However, in public, this could be a supporting explanation of why people feel uncomfortable when they are unable to see faces; we simply lose our ability to process or understand the person; our understanding of our community is mildly destabilized.
To turn this around from the viewed to the viewer, covering one’s face thus isolates one from full integration. These women will never be considered equal. We sometimes see in the news successful face transplants, and even though they’ll never look the same as a person without a face transplant, there is still a powerful drive to have a face in the community. It is incredibly difficult for a person to be political without a face, as our own personal politics is an expression of our views as an individual, and without a face we would lose our individuality. Covering one’s face in public, again in non-Muslim countries, thus suggests that this person is to be excluded from politics, which clearly bolsters patriarchal non-democratic forms of government.
There is also an extensive history of predators and assassins who have masked their identity to facilitate the realization of their morbid goals. This leads to a deep suspicion of those who would like to hide their identity from the community. Covering the face also leads to security concerns, such as at banks and airports. When you do not know who a person is, and you cannot see their expression, you cannot be informed of their intentions, which of course could be a security concern.
So, after all of these pretty powerful reasons for why a person’s face should be exposed, how could I have come to the conclusion that it’s okay?
I think the most powerful argument here, is that you cannot legislate what women wear. With the notable exception of indecency laws (wearing nothing in public), as soon as you legislate what a woman can wear, you are assaulting her rights as a person, and you are undermining her right to choose what she wears. I believe this is counter to the values of what Western culture has been founded on, even if you want to argue that in a Muslim country she would not have the choice of what she wears.
The initial intuition of seeing a woman wearing a burka or a niqab must not lead to unbridled prejudice or negativity. By reminding oneself of the respect we should show all people, one should consciously make the effort to smile or converse (where appropriate), and not let the difference lead to acts of harassment or even assault (I’m getting sick of seeing news stories where women have had their burkas, niqabs, or hijabs pulled from their heads). To talk of cultural values, this is also counter to Western values.
It is also worth pointing out that the majority of Muslim women do not wear a burka or a niqab, and so we have to be careful that we are not generalizing, and not looking at Islam in a limited and two dimensional manner. We often find when we talk to people that we once considered to be different, that we are the same in many ways. We all have dreams and passions, we all care for our friends and families, and most of us care for long lasting peace than we do engaging in wars and killing.
I am not overly keen on the public wearing of the burka or the niqab, but my respect for the woman wearing it is (and has to be) more important than my superficial assessment of her choice.