ONTD Political

Face veils are not like any other religious garment - they are intended to smother identity, writes Dan Gardner

On Monday, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney directed that anyone taking the citizenship oath must bare his or her face. Muslim women who wear a veil and refuse to comply will not be permitted to take the oath. And if they don't take the oath, they can't become citizens.

I'm not going to debate the wisdom of that decision. Reasonable arguments can be made for and against it.

But some liberal opponents of these measures go too far when they suggest that veils are no different than turbans, hijabs, yarmulkes or Senators jerseys.

Veils smother identity. They impede communication. They cripple integration. Veils are unlike any other garment in our multicultural wardrobe: They are not only anti-woman, they are anti-social. Even anti-human. That's because veils cover the face. And the importance of the face in human psychology cannot be overstated.

The moment a baby can use its eyes, it starts scanning faces and identifying individuals. Even newborns can distinguish between their mother's face and others'.

As we mature, spotting and identifying faces becomes something we do effortlessly. And automatically. As we go for a walk, we can no more stop ourselves from glancing at the faces of others, and identifying individuals, than we can stop breathing. We all do it. (Or almost all of us. A tiny handful of people with the condition known as "prosopagnosia" lack the ability to identify people by their faces. They suffer terribly as a result.)

It's often said the human brain is a pattern-seeking machine. The pattern it most wants to find is the human face. This is why the most common "false positive" - seeing a pattern where there isn't one - is a face. We see them in clouds. On the surface of the moon. In burnt toast. And what is the famous "have a nice day!" smiley face? Two dots and a curved line. But we don't see two dots and a curved line. We see a person. A happy person.

That's another thing about faces. We don't just use them to identify people. We rely on them to understand what people are thinking and feeling.

Charles Darwin argued in an 1872 book, The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, that our common biological origins had produced common forms of emotional expression not only among all humans, but across species. Darwin illustrated his point by juxtaposing the faces of chimpanzees at play with humans laughing.

In the 1960s, researchers sought to put Darwin's hypothesis to the test. If emotional expression is biologically hardwired, they reasoned, it must be universal. A smile can't signal happiness only in Western cultures. It must signal happiness everywhere. Widened eyes and open mouth must mean surprise everywhere. Narrowed eyes and pursed lips must always mean anger. And so on.

Psychologists Paul Ekman and Wallace Friesen took 3,000 photographs of actors expressing one of six emotions - happiness, surprise, anger, sadness, disgust, and fear - and asked test subjects in five culturally distinct countries to identify the emotion portrayed. In every country, people got it right 80 to 90 per cent of the time.

Skeptics noted that the people in all those countries had been exposed to Western media. Perhaps they had learned to read Western forms of facial expression, they said.

Ekman and Friesen responded with an incredible study: In Papua New Guinea, they found a Stone Age tribe that had experienced almost no contact with the outside world, so Ekman lived among them for six months, studying their communications and conducting a series of ingenious experiments. In one, tribesmen were told a story in which, for example, the character was sad. They were then asked to identify the photograph which corresponded to the emotion. Their responses were essentially identical to those of people around the world.

Ekman also asked the tribesmen to imagine they were characters in a story and to make the facial expressions the characters would make when they were sad, angry, and so on. He took their pictures and American university students were later asked to identify the emotions being expressed. Once again, the match was close to perfect.

This work, along with a mountain of other research, has established that the face is hardwired into human psychology. It is the locus of identity. It is the canvas of emotion. We are so supremely sensitive to faces that the tiniest changes in facial musculature - even inadvertent or unconscious changes - can completely alter the apparent meaning of spoken words. Suppressed anger can be revealed, desires surfaced, lies exposed. A subtle affection may be expressed. A deeper trust established.

But none of that can happen if a veil is in the way.

A woman who consistently wears a veil in public is cut off from the people around her. She has no identity. Her ability to communicate and emotionally connect with others is severely restricted. Instinctively, people feel distant from her, and won't trust her, not because they are bigots but because their automatic face-seeking and face-reading is stymied. How can they fully connect with a person who is present but they cannot see?

That is the purpose of veils, after all. They are barriers. They are intended to separate the person behind from those in front. Whether a woman wears a veil voluntarily or not, the effect is the same.

Veils segregate. They are sartorial apartheid.

I can understand why feminists and liberals are reluctant to put it so bluntly. Many of those who loudly condemn veils out of a professed concern for women are simply anti-Muslim bigots. And if women are truly free, shouldn't they be free to wear a veil if they wish?

I share these views. We must protect a stigmatized minority from bigots. We must defend the freedom to dress as we wish to the greatest extent practicable. But we must also see veils for what they are


ETA: Courtesy of radname, a RESPONSE from a Muslim woman defending the veil, which Gardner posted on his blog.
poetic_pixie_13 14th-Dec-2011 10:02 pm (UTC)
I hate face-covering veils because they are a tool of oppression

Oh. Do you also hate make-up and high heels and short skirts and and and and?
kitanabychoice I'm going to leave here what my bestie said14th-Dec-2011 10:09 pm (UTC)
I hate face-covering veils because they are a tool of oppression

I understand veils have roots in a culture that devalues women, but I believe most Arab women are intelligent enough to make thier own decisions.
fatpie42 Re: I'm going to leave here what my bestie said15th-Dec-2011 11:36 pm (UTC)
I'm pretty sure there are plenty of cases where women don't have that much genuine choice about whether they wear the veil. They are part of a family for whom it is the cultural norm and it would be shocking to family if they did not follow tradition.

The thing that annoys me about this article is that it all feels rather convenient:
"Oh so psychological studies prove that veils are morally wrong then? That's remarkable since I thought psychology studied the human psyche, not morals standards. And what a surprise that the morals psychology has suddenly started advocating just happen to fit your personal stereotypes."

The best arguments that the veil is oppressive, it seems to me, come from women who can attest to how it oppressed them. There are plenty of such women.

Making spurious arguments based on psychology, on the other hand, just strikes me as bizarre.
apis_cerana 14th-Dec-2011 10:14 pm (UTC)
Modesty =/= oppression
Some feminists wear modest garb to protect themselves from the male gaze.
sasha_davidovna 14th-Dec-2011 10:51 pm (UTC)
And it works so well, too.

I dress pretty modestly myself, but if men are going to be assholes, they're going to be assholes, no matter what you're wearing. Dressing modestly specifically to avoid male attention is pointless, and even more so when it's done on a societal or cultural level. They'll just fixate on progressively sillier things as being unbearably titillating, until you have that Saudi cleric announcing that women really only need one eye because having both uncovered at once is too provocative, or Marius throwing a conniption fit in Les Miserables because Cossette's dress gets caught by the breeze and displays her ankle to the world at large. :P
7th_rock_alien 14th-Dec-2011 11:25 pm (UTC)
But here's the thing, though: Women shouldn't have to "protect themselves" from leering eyes. Men should respect our bodies, our minds, and our being without having to be told so or being discouraged from doing so by physically hiding our bodies from them. This is a level of sexism that goes both ways. Misogynist because women shouldn't have to hide to avoid feeling discomfort in the presence of men, and misandrist because it assumes that men are drooling beasts incapable of controlling their sexual urges whenever they see uncovered skin. Men are human beings capable of thought and reason, and they should be held up to that standard no matter what culture they're from.

Now, don't get me wrong. I believe that women have the right to wear whatever they want, no matter how modest or how skimpy, but no woman should ever be coerced into doing so out of fear or against her own will, and that is the problem with certain types of clothing that are designed by men for women. Each individual woman should be allowed to make her own decision on where to draw the line without fear of criticism, and how many of us actually get to do that?

I think that's what people are trying to say? Sorry, just dipping my toe in for the first time.
lilenth 15th-Dec-2011 11:01 am (UTC)

Doesn't work too well I hear though.
evilgmbethy 15th-Dec-2011 01:23 am (UTC)
hey since you're so concerned about women, did you ever respond to the person that asked you why your default icon is of a women saying "hit me with a club?" I saw it in a post a while ago but never saw an answer from you.
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