Lorraine Harding: Why I would ban the full veil in universities

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In my last few years as a lecturer in higher education, I realised I faced a hypothetical dilemma. Fortunately, for me it never became more than hypothetical.

Around the campus, I saw the occasional figure shrouded in black from head to foot, only the eyes visible. Sometimes the eyes were further concealed by the addition of round, pebble-like spectacles.

What would I do if one of these students - I assumed they were students - turned up in a lecture or tutorial? I was fairly sure that my institution, with a strong line in politically correct equal-opportunities policies, would come down heavily on me if I refused to teach a veiled student.

The minister for higher education, Bill Rammell, has recently supported universities and colleges that ban the full veil, as Imperial College, London, did about a year ago.

What are the reasons for finding a face-covering veil worn by a student - or indeed by a lecturer - unacceptable? First, good teaching depends on a degree of non-verbal communication between teacher and students. Facial expression is an important element in this, and a visually impaired teacher or student confronts an obstacle here.

Any half-decent lecturer will be watching the faces of the students for feedback during a lecture. Are they bored, puzzled, interested, enthusiastic, in disagreement, turned off, or what? Is it time to move on, expand the point, slow down, speed up, take a break, or use a visual aid?

In small-group teaching, such as in tutorials or seminars, sensitive non-verbal interaction - both between tutor and students, and among students - is crucial. Here, a dialogue is supposed to be taking place. Part of what we express comes from the face, and part of what we respond to in others comes from the detection of quite subtle facial cues. Veil-wearing blocks out some of these signals - and this is going to affect fellow students, who have a right to be considered, as well as the tutor. What would it would be like for the students if the tutor wore a veil, blocking out her facial signals? Wouldn't the students have grounds for complaint?

A second point is that recognising individuals and remembering their names is important. It is one way in which the mass nature of higher education can be counteracted, and teaching be tailored to individual needs. It is true that this feature is often sadly lacking as it is; in fact, in my latter years I found it a standing joke among the older academics that, as we aged, all the students started to "look the same". And the gross deterioration in the student-to-staff ratio over the past 20 years or so has exacerbated the difficulty of identifying individuals.

Nevertheless, as you work with a group of students, you do come to memorise some names and faces, remembering how particular students have contributed to discussion, what their last essays were like, what strengths and weaknesses they have, what their likeable (or otherwise) quirks of personality are, and so on. But how do you link names and faces if there are no faces? It is then bodily shape and size, tone of voice, gestures, that have to be remembered - a more complex, laborious task. Of course if only one student is veiled, she will stand out and she will be remembered. But if several are veiled? If they all are?

There are practical issues too, to do with establishing identity. How do we know that the student sitting in the examination room at desk X is who she is supposed to be, if she is veiled either in person, or in the picture on her ID card, or both? In general, the concealment of identity through covering the face has implications for honesty versus deception. How do I know you are who you say you are, or know whether I have met you before? Sighted individuals know each other largely by facial recognition; surely some trust is lost when the face is concealed. The world becomes a more anonymous and threatening place, where disguise and duplicity are more possible.

And, in an encounter between a veiled woman and a non-veiled other, there is immediately an inequality. The veiled one can observe but not be observed in return. It is curious that the argument that "blind people cannot see others' faces" was advanced by one veiled woman interviewed on television, in support of her case, because it actually is a counter-argument. The veil, whatever it does to the woman wearing it, is literally disabling to non-veiled others. And higher education institutions have a responsibility to think of these others, both students and staff.

It is for these reasons that I would support the banning of the full, face-covering veil in institutions of higher education. None of these objections apply to the hijab, however, which leaves the face fully visible.

The writer is a retired senior lecturer in social policy at Leeds University