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English Schools and Face Veils – Barriers to Education?

September 26, 2014


Much fuss in the British media about a schoolgirl banned from class for wearing the niqab, the full face veil. Here’s an excerpt from what the Independent reports:

In a statement, the school’s governing body refused to “discuss individual pupils” but cited “an appearance policy” which states: “Inappropriate dress which offends public decency or which does not allow teacher student interactions will be challenged.” The statement added that the policy was adopted “several years ago” and “written at a time when a girl wished to wear a niqab, and teachers found that this made teaching difficult.”

The school defended its decision as “very much an educational one” and said: “teachers need to see a student’s whole face in order to read the visual cues it provides. In addition, it is important for the safety and security of the school community to know who is on site, and to be able to see and identify individuals.”

I’m not going to get into the politics of face veils beyond what I wrote on the subject four years ago, in The Veil of Fears. My views haven’t changed since then.

But I do have some experience of teaching women wearing the niqab. For several years I’ve run management and personal development workshops in Saudi Arabia. Those of you who are familiar with the Kingdom might ask why, as a man, I am allowed to teach women in that very conservative country. The reason is that contrary to popular myth there are several workplaces where men work alongside women – the most common being hospitals.

So a couple of dozen times a year I find myself working with mixed groups. The men tend to be on one side of the room, and the women on the other. This is not a pre-ordained arrangement, just the way they feel most comfortable. Depending on the city, some or all of the women will be wearing the niqab. I don’t have the option – like the school in London, or the French state, which has legislated on the matter – to ask the women to remove their veils. I have to deal with what I see, or don’t see.

But I can see the eyes. At the beginning, it was a bit disconcerting. But over time I have acquired the ability to read much more from the eyes, from the voice and from body language than ever before. Think about it. When you watch the theatre that is human expression, the eyes are the leading player. All the other cues are the supporting cast. If you’re unable to see, then the voice takes the place of the eyes. The brain compensates for the missing input, and after a while does quite nicely without it.

The only problem I have is recognising names without a name card being next to the person. There again, there are ways around the problem. Although most of the women are wearing black abayas, each wears distinctive shoes. So I try to memorise names against shoes, as opposed to faces.

Would it be easier if faces were visible? Of course. But not so much easier that the process of teaching and interacting is seriously degraded without visual cues beyond the eyes. These days, it feels perfectly normal. In fact the women tend to be more lively and enthusiastic than many of the men. Their personalities shine through the black gauze, and working with them is often a joy. Whether this is a conscious effort on their part to transcend the limitations of appearance, I don’t know. And for my part, I can focus on the person within rather than the meta-information that comes from physical appearance.

So my message to the teachers in that London school is that the niqab needn’t be a barrier to effective teaching – you can do it if you want to. Whether you should have to do it, and whether the girls should be allowed to cover up, is another matter. The practical objections by the school, such as difficulty of identification, can be overcome. So I suspect that the underlying concern – especially in the light of recent revelations of covert efforts to “Islamise” teaching in various West Midlands schools – is cultural and social.

And that’s a far bigger issue which goes to the heart of much of the unease in Britain’s cities and in our society in general.

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