Do We Really Need To See A Person’s Face? Chatting to Vanessa Feltz about the Danish Niqab Ban

'Her Eyes' by Ranoush on Flickr. Creative Commons Licence.

Denmark have banned the burka and the niqab, because “we must be able to see each other and we must also be able to see each other’s facial expressions, it’s a value in Denmark”, according to Justice Minister Søren Pape Poulsen. That’s a strange sort of value: taken literally, it would presumably also mean a ban on motorcycle helmets and many kinds of carnival costumes.

We should call this out for what it is: an illiberal attempt to bait Muslims for electoral gain; and an attack on both freedom of expression and freedom of belief. This was my view when France enacted similar legislation in 2010, and in 2016 when some French municipalities tried to ban the ‘burkini’ on their beaches.

I find myself in the unusual position of agreeing with Boris Johnson on this issue. He wrote about it in his Sunday Telegraph column yesterday. Many people have criticised Johnson for likening the clothing (and the women who wear them) as ‘letterboxes’, which was indeed insulting and wrong. But I think the column as a whole is a classically liberal argument against harassing a minority. The veil might not be our choice, but its wrong to stop others from choosing it. I hate what you wear, but defend your right to wear it, as Voltaire or Tallentyre might have put it.

However, there is one piece of conventional wisdom on this issue that I think should be challenged. Johnson writes:

human beings must be able to see each other’s faces and read their expressions. It’s how we work.

Is it though? I suspect this ‘intuitive’ knowledge may not be as true as we think it is. A couple of years ago, when OFSTED said they would mark down schools where a veiled teacher hindered learning, a friend of mine wrote to me about her experience of being taught by a teacher thus attired:1

I went to a school in East London where five girls in my year group wore a full face veil. All five of them got awards for having the highest GCSE’s in our year.

My maths teacher had a full face veil and I was in her class from year 9 to 11. My maths grade improved from a failing U grade to me getting a C on the Higher Maths Paper. She was the best maths teacher I ever had. I learnt the most from her and improved my maths tremendously. My teacher before her was a man and he made me feel like I was really bad at maths.

It doesn’t matter if a teacher is veiled in my opinion. Even when they’re veiled the body language comes across. It really doesn’t matter at all.

See also the viral blog post by Thomas Mauchline, ’15 things I learnt about Islam and British values being a gay boy living opposite a mosque’:

You can do that look British people do to each other, when someone near by is making a scene, in a full face veil.

The eyes are the ‘windows to the soul’, apparently. So maybe its eye contact and one’s voice that are the real essentials for good communication, rather than facial expressions?

Earlier today I called the Vanessa Feltz breakfast show on BBC Radio London to make these points. The entire programme, with contributions from women who choose to wear the veil, is very interesting. My short twopenn’orth was at about 9:35AM, and you can listen to what I said via the player below or on SoundCloud.


1. Reproduced with permission, and lightly edited to remove names and places.

Calling LBC to Debate Our Response To Terrorism

What a hideous few days for terrorist attacks in Europe.  First, a spate of incidents in Germany: an axe attack; a shooting that killed nine people; someone with machete; and most recently a suicide bomber that injured 15 people. 

And then on Tuesday, the despicable murder of Fr Jacques Hamel at his church in Rouen, France. It’s less than a month since the Nice attacks, when a man in a truck deliberately ran over hundreds of people celebrating Bastille Day.

The regularity of these attacks only adds to the fear that the terrorists seek to sow.  There is a sense that Europe is a battleground, that things are falling apart.  The Far Right will seek to exploit this fear to their advantage.

We need to remember that these incidents are still extremely rare.  After the Nice attacks, the author Tom Pollock wrote a post on the likelihood of someone being hurt by a terrorist:

In France, in the last two years, there have been 8 attacks for which responsibility was claimed by Islamic Extremist Terrorists, killing a total of 247 people. There are 66,000,000 people in France. At the current level of activity, their odds of being killed in a terrorist attack in a given year are less than two ten-thousandths of one per cent. That’s 27 times lower than their odds of dying in a car accident. …

In Iraq, by contrast, the chances are much higher.

We would do well to remember this… but of course it’s not the whole story. Being told that they are extremely unlucky is no comfort to the victims or their families. And even though the chances of you or me being caught up in a terrorist attack are vanishingly small, we still do not want to live in a country or on a continent where this happens so frequently.  There is a psychological impact on everyone. 

Yesterday, I heard the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy on the radio, suggesting that everyone now needs to alter their mental state. We must, he said, become far more cautious and suspicious in public spaces. He offered Israel as an example of the permenant state of alert that Europe needs to adopt.

I think that would be sad and wrong. The Israelis perpetual expectation of attack is one reason given for the continued occupation of the West Bank.  It’s an attitude that leads to soldiers shooting at children throwing stones.

But Something Must Be Done, right?

Perhaps not. What seems clear from the recent attacks is that the level of co-ordination with the leaders of Islamic State / Daesh is minimal and perhaps non-existent. There may not be any networks to infiltrate or many conversations on which to eavesdrop. The security services are surely already doing all they can, but there is no easy way to prevent so-called ‘lone wolves’ using everyday objects to hurt ordinary people, as happened in Rouen and Nice.  

At least, no way that would preserve civil liberties and the open society that we value, and which the terrorists loathe. Security guards outside churches, really?  It’s a problem that can only be solved with long term social policies, not quick-fix increase in the security presence.

On Monday, I called into the Breakfast Show on the talk radio channel LBC. During the programme, plenty of callers had been discussing the latest terror attacks.  Some people advocated racial and religious profiling, and The host, Nick Ferrari, seemed to be imply that the terrorism was essentially the fault of asylum and immigration policy.

I called in to say two things.  The first was to point out that (pace Tom Pollock, above) terrorists kill a tiny, tiny proportion of the population of Europe.

My second point was that we should not introduce any new policies, such as banning Muslims or ignoring refugees, that would compromise our values.  Such policies are exactly what the terrorists want because they ‘sharpen the contradictions‘. Demonising Muslims and turning away refugees will only boost recruitment to ISIS.  I am shocked that there are still people in this country and around Europe who do not understand this.

At the end of my impromptu contribution to Nick Ferrari’s show, I tried to introduce the idea that we should accept that some people will die from terrorism, in the same way that people die from cancer, in wars or car accidents. In this, I had in mind the short article ‘Just Asking‘ by David Foster Wallace, written for Atlantic magazine in 2007.

What if we chose to regard the 2,973 innocents killed in the atrocities of 9/11 not as victims but as democratic martyrs, “sacrifices on the altar of freedom”? In other words, what if we decided that a certain baseline vulnerability to terrorism is part of the price of the American idea?

If we must change our way of thinking, let us internalise this: We cannot live in a state of total security.  Some crime and even terrorism is always likely to be with us. This idea is something that liberal people, who support human rights and a free society, often try to avoid talking about.  I have written before on the need for campaigners and those who advocate for civil rights to be honest about the negative consequences of advocating freedom. We need to better explain why the freedoms and rights that we hold are worth preserving, even if bad people can do bad things with those freedoms. 

When I made this point on my LBC, Nick Ferrari accused me of being “sanguine” about terrorist deaths! I cannot decide whether he was right on that point: perhaps in the moment my argument was poorly put. Or conversely, perhaps accusing rights defenders of such things is a standard tactic deployed by those of a more authoritarian tendency?

Incredibly, the audio from the show does not appear to be readily available online, so you cannot judge for yourselves. 

Brothers Grim

Khalid and Ibrahim el-Bakraoui

Belgium has become the latest victim of a terrorist attack. Daesh/Islamic State have claimed responsibility for the bombings in Brussels, and the authorities there have named two of the suicide bombers as brothers Khalid and Ibrahim el-Bakraoui.

The last three terrorist outrages in Europe have all been carried out by brothers.  Salah and Brahim Abdeslam were part of the group who carried out the Paris attacks on 13th November 2015. Continue reading “Brothers Grim”

Round-up: Charlie Hebdo and the PEN Courage Award

Charlie Hebdo is not a racist publication. But even if it was, its stand against fundamentalist religion took courage and should be applauded.

Freedom of expression is being debated yet again, and this time my colleagues at the PEN American Center are in the middle of the discussion.  Six of its members have withdrawn as ‘literary hosts’ from the annual fundraising gala, in protest at the decision to award Charlie Hebdo a ‘Freedom of Expression Courage’ award.

In the New York Times, Peter Carey, one of the boycotting authors, is quoted as saying:

“A hideous crime was committed, but was it a freedom-of-speech issue for PEN America to be self-righteous about?”

Salman Rushdie was also quoted in the New York Times piece, defending the award:

“If PEN as a free speech organization can’t defend and celebrate people who have been murdered for drawing pictures, then frankly the organization is not worth the name,” Mr. Rushdie said. “What I would say to both Peter and Michael and the others is, I hope nobody ever comes after them.”

Continue reading “Round-up: Charlie Hebdo and the PEN Courage Award”

The ritual of condemnation

In an excellent, angry essay on the contradictions of our collective response to the Charlie Hebdo atrocity, Sam Kriss makes this point:

The armed attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo was a vile and senseless act of murder. I condemn it utterly, it repulses me, and my sympathies are entirely with the families and loved ones of the victims. I can only hope that the perpetrators are caught, and that they face justice. All this is true; I really do mean it. But it’s also politician-speak, inherently false. Read any article against the sacralisation of the magazine, especially one written by anyone from a Muslim background, and you’ll see a paragraph like this one, either strangely stilted (I utterly condemn…) or falsely slangy and overfamiliar (a bunch of gun-wielding cockwombles…). Why should this be necessary? Why do we feel the need to prove that, like all sane and decent people, we don’t somehow support the gunning down of ten innocent journalists? Why this ritualised catechism; why can’t we get straight to the point? Is this not itself a kind of restriction of free speech?

Continue reading “The ritual of condemnation”

Can Charlie Hebdo rise again?

The callous murder of ten journalists and two policemen yesterday in the centre of Paris is a landmark moment. The French now have their own 9/11 or 7/7. It’s certainly a defining moment in the history of freedom of expression too: on a par with the Rushdie fatwa.

It’s less than 24 hours since the atrocity and the murders are still at large, yet there is already so much to write about. With ‘moments’ such as this we experience cycles of news, comment, counter-comment and meta comment (i.e. comment on the comment). We seem to be experiencing all of these at once. Continue reading “Can Charlie Hebdo rise again?”

Trouble Looming over Burqa Ban

So, French MPs have voted to ban the burka.

We know where this story will go next.  Somewhere in France, a woman will engage in a piece of civil disobediance and enter a public space wearing her veil.  She will draw attention, crowds, the press.  She will be asked to leave, but she will not leave.  Eventually, she will be deported from the area by the gendarmerie or other state agency.  Worse, someone may try to pull off the offending strip of cloth.

This event will be photgraphed and videoed by more than one person, and the footage will be on YouTube within the hour.  It will then become a staple of anti-secular propaganda, proving the intolerance of the European mind and the inherent anti-Islamic sentiment sweeping the West.

Some might suggest that my worries about this inevitable end-point are purely pragmatic.  They might agree that the new French law is counter-productive in the PR war against fundamentalist Islam… but then go on to argue that sometimes, the right decisions are not popular and that we cannot allow short-term realpolitik to trump the principle of the thing.

Here, I have to disagree.  I think that the question over policing what people wear is the principle at stake here.  Dictating dress codes is an incursion on an individual’s free expression.  If we condemn a misogynistic religion or a patriarchal culture when it proscribes what women wear, then how can we support a government that intervenes (and sets prohibitions) in precisely the same arena?  It is appalling.

I often hear the argument that women who wear the veil are “brainwashed”, an assertion that certainly makes sense to me.1 But such a claim is unfalsifiable, impossible to verify.  It is therefore a useless and illegitimate argument to put forward in the political arena, and not a good enough reason to legislate.  If we are truly convinced that brainwashing has taken place, then we must engage in “reverse-brainwashing”, putting forward alternative arguments, explaining the theory and the history of patriarchy, in the hope that people make different choices.  We might begin by discussing the value of facial expressions in communication, while taking an honest look at the idea of the “male gaze” and the undoubted objectification and sexualisation of the female form that is endemic in all cultures.

This is a longer and more frustrating approach, but far better than one which says that you are empowered by being criminalised.  Unfortunately, such long-term thinking rarely appeals to politicians, who favour the heavy-hand of legislation over deeper, cultural approaches.  A burqa ban is also a convenient dog-whistle for the far-right groups, who mainstream politicians are happy to pander to at the expense of a minority with no discernible political power.

If the burqa and the niqab are oppressive to women, then the only people who can shrug off that oppression is the women themselves.  Ripping off that ‘oppression’, by force and at a time of our own choosing, does not look like liberation at all.  It merely substitutes one form of dictatorship for another, returns no autonomy to the women themselves, and unwittingly endorses intolerance.  The philosopher Alain Badiou has a great formulation:

Basically put: these girls or women are oppressed. Hence, they shall be punished. It’s a little like saying: “This woman has been raped: throw her in jail.”

Interesting articles taking a similar view at the F-Word and Oye Times.

'Her Eyes' by Ranoush on Flickr. Creative Commons Licence.
‘Her Eyes’ by Ranoush on Flickr. Creative Commons Licence.

1. One might also suggest that women who wear too little are similarly brainwashed. After all, are they not persuaded to do so by the diktats of the celebrity gossip magazines?

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