Face, the Facts


David Canter explores psychological aspects of why hiding the face in a niqab is so significant.

The recent debates about the acceptability of Moslem women wearing veils that cover their face such as the niqab that leaves only the eyes visible, or the Burkah that hides the whole face and body, when giving evidence in court, teaching in schools or working in a hospital and other public places, have concentrated on cultural freedoms, and practical or even hygienic concerns. Parallels to other religious forms of dress have been drawn and the implications for attitudes to women spelled out.  There are important psycho-social aspects inherent in these debates that it is of value to make explicit. A psychologically significant line is crossed when the face is covered.  The consideration of what this is all about will help us to understand if covering the face is a qualitative step further than that taken by other forms of religious or ritualistic dress?

Let me be clear, I am not including the hijab head scarf in these considerations. You only need a brief www search to realise that wearing these pretty head coverings can be a carefully formulated fashion statement. It draws attention to the face as well as serving to declare identity, as much as – if not more than – a Sikh’s turban, or a baseball cap worn backwards. Sure, the identity indicated by the hijab has clear religious connotations, much as wearing a dominant crucifix does, but head scarves are a sign of respect worn by devout women in Judaism and Christianity.  What happens when that devotion is taken a stage further and only the eyes are visible?

The psychological considerations are brought to the fore by looking at portraits. They always focus on the face. There may be other indicators of rank, status and interests, flowing robes and apparatus, but it is the face that is the centre of attention. This is not surprising. There is plenty of social and psychological research that shows how important the face is in human interaction. Young babies recognise faces as special objects from an early age, and their mothers face as particularly important. Indeed, facial recognition turns out to be a very powerful and complex human capability, utilising many different cognitive resources.

One intriguing consequence of our sensitivity to faces is that small variations in facial appearance can carry significance.  Scars on the face influence perceptions of people far beyond what would be expected from small blemishes. Beards carry significance as the recent debate over bearded TV presenters indicated (although I’m sure this is not an issue for women wearing a Niqab). Many other judgements flow from what we expect of facial details.

Interestingly memory for faces is greatly influenced by recollections of details of hair and its styles. So hiding the hair does contribute to difficulties in identifying individuals. This is perhaps not such a big problem with the hijab because the head scarf itself is such a distinct feature of the person, and as I’ve mentioned the face is given even more prominence. But the absence of any hint of hair with the niqab contributes to the general anonymity, more than a face mask would.

We get a lot more from faces than just recognising who a person is. Most visual indicators of emotion are carried by the face. This is revealed by the many studies of whether emotions are universally identifiable. They consist of showing people pictures of the same face with different expressions to see if people from different cultures can agree on what emotion is being expressed. The smiley face emoticon is a distillation of what emotions a face can reveal.

Face to face conversation is managed mainly by small facial gestures; raised eyebrows, scowls, curves of the lips, twitches of the nose. I am not sure which of these may revealed when wearing a niqab, but there is plenty of research to show that conversations run less smoothly over the telephone, or when people cannot see each other. Eye contact is of course a crucial aspect of human interaction and that is possible with the niqab, but not with more intensive veils.

My point, then, is that there may well be many sincere, profound, personal religious reasons for wearing the niqab, just as people stick to dietary principles, or honour the Sabbath. Yet it has to be appreciated that just as refusing to work on the Sabbath or to eat pork cuts people off from aspects of social activity, so wearing a veil that only reveals the eyes separates the wearer from fundamental aspects of social interaction. This is presumably part of the reason for wearing the niqab. It hides identity and greatly limits the possibility of free flowing face to face discourse. Religious belief may lead a woman to accept, or even welcome, those limits. That is for the woman to choose, but hopefully awareness of the social and psychological implications of those limits will help her to make an informed choice.

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David Canter

Professor David Canter, the internationally renowned applied social researcher and world-leading crime psychologist, is perhaps most widely known as one of the pioneers of "Offender Profiling" being the first to introduce its use to the UK.

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