Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Behind the veil

The other day on campus during a class break, I stepped into the women's restroom to use the facilities. When I went to the sink to wash my hands, there was another girl there. I didn't recognize her as an acquaintance so I was really surprised when she started talking to me very familiarly, as if we knew each other.

After hearing her voice, I quickly realized that we did know each other - she was one of my classmates, in the very class we were currently enjoying a break from. The reason I hadn't recognized her standing next to me at the sink is because I had never seen her face before.

You see, she wears niqab, an Islamic head covering that leaves only the eyes uncovered. When paired with an abaya, as it usually is, the result is a woman clothed in a long swath of anonymous, shape-concealing black, with only the eyes to give any hint of an individual's identity.

I happen to like the veil in most of its many iterations, as long as a woman is wearing it by her own choice. It seems so liberating to me. The girl whose face I saw for the first time standing at the bathroom sink is the only one in my class who wears niqab specifically (though there are others who wear hijab). When she speaks, there is nothing to look at besides her eyes. There is nothing to hear but the ideas she is sharing. There are no judgments to make except the ones based on the words coming out of her mouth (which you can't even see). You really, honestly, fully, hear her, as a person - not as a collection of clothing choices or fashion mistakes or hairstyle decisions. You just look at her, and listen.

I wonder sometimes what it's like for professors here who have more than one niqab'd student in the same class. I mean absolutely no disrespect when I say that it must be hard to tell such students apart, at least at first, and at least from a distance.

I was glad to see my classmate's face at last, and it was interesting to see what she really looked like compared to the idea I had formed of her based on our previous conversations and her comments in class. Would I have taken her words differently had I known what she looked like ahead of time? Does a person's face really influence what opinions we form about their ideas? I think so, at least a little bit. And that's not necessarily a bad thing. We depend on so much more than just words to communicate a sense of ourselves.

But in a way, it was nice to have a chance to hear someone before seeing them.


Jill said...

That happens to me all the time in my school bathroom. Hair makes a bigger difference than you would think. It always takes me a minute to figure out who I am looking at.

Sarah Familia said...

I loved your point about the niqab masking everything except words and ideas. Our world is so focused on external appearances. It really does seem like it would be nice sometimes to have a chance to evaluate people without the option of relying on their appearance.

This reminds me in a sort of tangential way of Ursula LeGuin's novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, in which she portrays a planet of hermaphrodites. Sometimes stripping away the complicating externals allows us to step back and view each other for what we really are: unique human beings, each with our own contribution to make to the world.

An unfortunate side note on your original point is that in many areas of the world (I'm particularly thinking of the caustic immigration debate going on in Europe at the moment) the very fact that a woman is veiled conveys an extremely strong (and false) impression to others about her ideas, her personality, and even her social desirability.

Jeremy Palmer said...

I sometimes interact with a female student in the niqab. I like the idea of focusing on their words without appearance but I also sometimes find the niqab to be a social barrier. I am not sure how to build a relationship of trust with someone whose face I don't know.

Anonymous said...

I cannot imagine interacting with a person who is covered from head to toe! Facial impressions tell you more about a person than the words that come out of their mouth with!!So Hijab i may understand but niqab definitely not. I can't trust or hear or feel with a woman who is hiding from the world like that. And by the way I am an arabic woman and I can never get used to this extremism.

Bridget said...

YES, Jill, isn't it amazing what a difference hair makes?? You'd think that a veil would approximate a hairline well enough, but no.

Sarah, good point about the reverse being true in parts of Europe - a niqab or veil causing people to prejudge instead of precluding that. Interesting.

Jeremy, I guess for you there is the added complication that you will never see the woman's face. At least I have the knowledge that I'm at least allowed to, or may someday see it.

Anonymous, I used to struggle more with the issue of niqab. I see it so much now that it has become more normal for me. Still, my favorite is regular old hijab. The only kind of veil that disturbs me these days is the full face coverage - niqab with the black covering over it. "Phantoms," we used to call them. That's when it gets hard for me to have a conversation with them. What do you look at??

Jennifer said...

This is so interesting! Do you think she realized that you didn't know her face and were surprised to see her, only recognizing her after hearing her voice?

Suzanne Bubnash said...

Not that I would ever want to wear one, but the hijab makes just about every woman look attractive, sophisticated, and in control. More importantly, it equalizes one woman to another. Niqab may do the same, but I prefer to see someone's entire face.

I once commented to a veiled woman about her cute baby, a woman who was wearing the full covering, even face & hands. It was distracting to me to wonder whether I was looking her in the eye.

Liz Johnson said...

That is really fascinating and really interesting. It kind of makes me want to wear a niqab, actually.

breanne said...

When I first lived in Jordan, I was terrified to speak to women wearing the niqab, even at the university. My Arabic still wasn't that great and with the niqab on, I couldn't watch their mouth and their words were slightly muffled. One day, though, I was in the bathroom at the university and this really skinny girl with braces was fixing her hair. She looked like she was maybe 18 or 19 and definitely not intimidating. When she put her niqab on and walked out, I realized (even though I knew it before) that the girls wearing the niqab at the university were normal human beings, too.

After that, I just pretended that under every niqab was a skinny 19 year old with braces, and I was a lot less intimidated!

Nancy said...

This was a great post; very interesting! And I really have nothing to add to the conversation except that I thought this was interesting...and that I did go out wearing a niqab in public once and it was actually very liberating. :)

RED said...

It's the same first anonymous :)

Well I don't think u can pretend that it's always an 18 years old female under this nib bcz it really can be anyone, it can be a man with some mascara on, in our world u can't trust what u see, how can we trust what we don't see then.
As much as I don't feel comfortable talking with a women with full coverage or niqab, on the other hand I have worked with NGOs helping poor communities in my country Jordan and wr u see more of niqab or full coverage, bcz in Jordan or Amman it's actually not so normal. Hijab u can see of course. I have talked to these girls and women, I don't judge them bcz I know the situation of wr they live and sometimes they have no choice. And they want to study or work or get married and raise a family like any other women.
BUT with my living bible, I know that everything that is forbidden causes so much problems for the person psychology not just the for the women, but also for the men in those communities and thr ideas about the women with no scarf, so for me I still think it's extremism.

Bridget said...

Jennifer, I actually told her I had no idea who she was until she started talking. She laughed and said that happens sometimes.


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