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To veil or not to veil?

As recent media coverage has documented, Muslim veils are a hot button issue at present.

Research suggests that “a major determinant of who is most vulnerable to anti-Islamic abuse may be the degree to which the individual is visibly identified as Muslim” (King & Ahmad, 2010, p. 886). For Muslim women, one such identifier is a veil. A veil can refer specifically to the hijab or head- scarf, covering just the head but leaving the face exposed, or the full-face veil, which covers the head and face. Hate crime and prejudice directed against Muslims seems to be strongly linked to such visible markers of “difference” (Dreher, 2006), and political discourse has used veils to represent “the problem of Islam” (Watson, 1994)

In recent work published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, I explored the way that such prejudice against Muslim women wearing veils may differ as a function of which particular veil is being worn. You can read the paper here for free (it’s open access), and so I won’t go into too much detail about how study and the psychological literature on prejudice and first impressions.

In this series of studies we explored the effects of Muslim veils on intergroup attitudes, emotions, and biases across four experimental studies. We sought to examine the importance of Muslim veils in an intergroup context: how are different types of Islamic veils perceived by non-Muslims, and what impact does this perception have on their attitudes, emotions, and biases? In Study 1, we conducted a within-subjects design to investigate if there were differences in emotions felt by participants toward women wearing different types of veil. We found that participants responded not only less favorably toward veiled than unveiled Muslim women, but also that responses were even more unfavorable toward women wearing the full-face veil, relative to those wearing the hijab. Study 2 partially replicated these differences using three different, non-affective types of response, assessing perspective taking, negative outcome expectancy, and expected fundamentalist–extremist religiosity across the same three levels of coverage (i.e., no veil, hijab, and full-face veil) in a between-subjects design. Results matched those in Study 1, whereby for all three dependent variables we found significantly less favorable responses for participants in the veil conditions, relative to those of participants in the no veil condition. In contrast to Study 1, however, we did not find consistent evidence that the full-face veil was perceived more negatively relative to the hijab. In Studies 3a and 3b, we extended our work on self- reported emotions and toward women who wore different types of Muslim veil using implicit measures to explore whether a more fine-grained differentiation of responses to different veils is possible at the implicit level. As predicted, we found a negative bias toward any type of common Muslim veil relative to a no veil baseline (Study 3a), and that there was a greater negativity bias toward the full-face veil compared with the hijab (Study 3b). These results confirmed our hypothesis that any type of Muslim veil would be associated with more negativity compared with no veil, and provide some support for the prediction that the full-face veil would be associated with more negativity relative to the hijab, while also suggesting that some of these differences may be more easily detectable at the implicit level. Our final study tested the extent to which these perceptions are malleable, demonstrating that changing construals of reasons for wearing a veil impacted the imagined contact experience of participants: construals of the veil as a sign of personal expression led to more positive attitudes about predicted communication with a Muslim woman wearing the full-face veil, relative to construals of the veil as a sign of oppression.

What I am interested in starting a discussion on here, though, is the extent to which our findings (and related ones) could help to inform whether Muslim women should wear a veil?

As we note in the paper,

“On balance, the above findings show that a Muslim female who wishes to wear a headdress—yet minimize the negative impacts on first impressions formed in non-Muslim perceivers—would do best to wear the hijab compared with other types of headdress that cover more of the face”

Yet we also highlight that we do not make any normative claims concerning what a Muslim woman should do, but rather what she might like to do given such evidence. Yet if we were to consider normative suggestions (which I do here merely as thought experiments, and do not represent the researcher’s thinking on this), what would they be?

One potential normative suggestions might be that the Muslim community should promote the wearing of the hijab relative to the full-face veil. Our study – and many others – have shown the full-face veil is perceived very negatively relative to the hijab. This is likely to have a number of negative effects, not just on the wearer of the veil but in causing tension between the Muslim and non-Muslim community, perpetuating negative stereotypes of Muslims more generally. From a broader community perspective, it seems that the burqa does pose a problem for community relations that the hijab does not. To promote such relations, maybe we should push for more hijab wearing.

Of course, the issue here is whether the problems that an action causes in the majority ‘host’ society should outweigh the personal autonomy of people to act in a way that confirms to their values. For example, it could be argued that the right of gay people to express their sexual orientation in gay pride marches outweighed the initial discomfort of the majority heterosexual population.

This issue, I suppose, comes down to the classic tension between the public and self-interest. With the veil, which will win? I look forward to reading comments on this.


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1 Comment on this post

  1. As far as I can tell, there are two separate issues with veil: the question of whether and how institutions should promote integration if integration is to be an essential item on the political agenda of any multicultural societies; then there is the question of whether the veil is harmful or detrimental irrespective of its role in integration. The first question I take to be mostly concerned with Muslim women as part of a cultural group, and thus to hinge on group-based claims and rights, while the second question I take to be mostly concerned with Muslim women as individuals, and thus to hinge on individual claims and rights.

    To be very honest, I don’t like veil of any sort. I think of it as the expression of completely obsolete social norms dating back from Ancient history and set up by men for controlling women in a society where women and lineage where used to create political bonds between rival and potentially opposite groups. Whenever I see a veil I feel I am being brought back to this unpleasant part of the history of mankind.

    But that’s only a matter of taste. Getting back to the real questions: I think it’s perfectly okay for a State to promote integration insofar as integration is fair to both immigrants’ and natives’ claims as different groups. The point of integration is, is roughly Rawlsian: to create conditions for cooperation and possibly to reinforce social interactions so as to enable equal liberties and fair access to socio-economic opportunities.

    Now I simply do not understand how either could possibly occur in a society where people cover their face whenever they are not with close relatives. Insofar as relationships with close relatives do not exhaust the array of potentially desirable relationships to others, and insofar as relationships to others are actually made more difficult by wearing facial veils, there only type of veil that can be tolerated in this respect is indeed the hijab.

    So yes, immigrants and natives as members of different cultural groups are entitled to their claims, but if integration is something institutions should promote as a part of their conceptions of justice, it should clearly be out of range of any group-based claim in favor of facial veils.

    This is compatible, of course, with changing the conception of justice of the institutions to a weaker one and then allow all sorts of veils.

    Now the obvious objection to this argument is to deny that equal liberties and fair access to socio-economic opportunities are disrupted by wearing facial veils. Someone could argue that the argument is biased toward the natives’ reactions toward any form of cultural difference, to the effect that, in fact, the argument even supports banning any form of veil, or ad absurdum, any form of cultural difference. Alternatively, one might object that, okay, maybe facial veils damage fair access to socio-economic opportunities but still are supported by equal liberties as part of the immigrant’s individual rights.

    Both objections could be summed up in the following dilemma: either the argument proves too much or adjudicates between two conflicting goals of its own conception of justice in a way that simply reinforces biases toward non-natives.

    At this point, a simple answer seems to be this: there is no need to target facial veils. Facial veils simply constitute a border-line case suggesting that cooperation and interactions cannot be promoted when people reveal too little about themselves (or too much: the case is symmetrical I think if people show naked in public). So the argument does not prove too much and we can all live happy with non-facial veils and no people naked in the streets all the time.

    As for the other horn of the dilemma, there is no clear argument for the claim that wearing a veil is part of anybody’s basic liberties and so there is no obvious conflict between equal liberties and socio-economic opportunities to be adjudicated in the first place. In secular societies, freedom of speech is already limited when in conflict with public interest, and religious rights protect only people’s religious beliefs, practices and places of worship.

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