Out of Sight, Out of Mind: the Niqab Debate and Ableism

The Quebec niqab thing keeps going and going (ugh), and I’m still avoiding talking about media coverage of the issue head-on, mostly because I think I’ll explode if I think more about the absurdity of it all, and I’ve written on niqab so much already that there’s not a lot else to say.  This post at Racialicious is a pretty good overview of the issue, and of some of the media and activism that has come out in response.  (Also, avoiding the media discussion isn’t the same as ignoring the issue.  See this link for a list of ways to take action, if you are so inclined–particularly any readers in Canada.)

And yet I can’t seem to avoid it entirely, because here I am writing about it again – at least, one dimension of it.  One quote from this (excellent) article from the Montreal Gazette raises an issue to think about that most other articles have not touched:

The claim that to teach language the teacher needs to see her mouth is to state that blind people cannot teach or learn language and that on-line language classes are bogus.

(To give some context, the latest fuss in Quebec comes largely as a reaction to a  woman, originally from Egypt, who was told she was required to remove her niqab in her French language class, so that her teacher could see her mouth in order to help with her pronunciation.)

It seems obvious, and yet, remarkably few of the articles about the niqab ban (in fact, none that I’ve seen aside from this one) ever even acknowledge the possibility of a context other than one where everyone is sighted.  My own writing on MMW about it has been equally ableist in this regard (ironically, I have actually talked about this before in academic papers, but somehow that particular analysis hasn’t made it onto the blog yet).

Of course, the majority of people are sighted, so it’s not necessarily wrong to assume a context that involves a high degree of visual communication; much about the very concept of religious covering depends on assumptions that everyone involved  is sighted.  What’s problematic is when this context is assumed to be everyone’s experience.  Moreover, the privileging of sight can have disturbing implications for what’s being said about those who do not see, or who process visual information differently from what is assumed to be the norm.

For example, when someone talks about being able to see the mouth as necessary for the proper instruction of a language, what are they saying about the abilities of someone who doesn’t see?  If having the chance to see each person’s face is supposedly a core feature of Canadian (or French, or whatever) society, what can we take from this about the social place of  people who are blind or otherwise visually impaired, or who have difficulty processing facial features or making eye contact?

If, as was raised in a Toronto court case last spring, it is essential to see the face in order to judge the credibility of a witness, is the implication then that blind people can never be competent judges or jury members?  (Adding to that, if “seeing [the complainant's] face as she testifies is a fundamental right” of a defendant, is a fair trial impossible if the defendant is blind?)

In other words, I think we need to ask who is being excluded from these (and other) conversations about niqab, and whose experiences are implicitly ignored, judged, or dismissed.  This is not meant to detract at all from the significance of what’s happening with regards to the niqab itself, but rather to show how Islamophobia is overlapping with ableism, and how it is not only the 25 women in Quebec who actually wear niqab who are being dehumanized and marginalized in many of these discussions.

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  • hannah

    I wanted to thank you for mentioning this, as I had not thought about the link between niqab-aphobia and blind people. This adds a very interesting dimension to the whole issue.

  • spiralsheep

    Hmm, I understand the point you’re making about the ablist implications against blind people in the one very specific instance you cite but that argumant also opens the door to anti-ablist arguments that women shouldn’t wear niqab because it discriminates against lip-readers. Every niqabi I know lifts the relevant part of their covering to speak with lip-readers (and to eat/drink in public) but I suppose there might be a miniscule percentage who don’t.

  • Asmaa

    Definitely an important dimension of this discussion. Thanks Krista!

  • Krista

    @ spiralsheep:

    A couple thoughts. First, just to clarify, I’m not talking about “one very specific instance” here, but a recurring pattern of comments and assumptions that arise in nearly all niqab-panic situations that I’ve seen. The idea that seeing someone’s face is necessary in educational or legal contexts, or that seeing each other’s faces is a vital part of interaction in Canadian/Western society, suggests that people who don’t see are necessarily going to be deficient teachers, lawyers/judges, or members of society. That’s not okay.

    You’re right that a discussion of ableism is wider than what I’ve referred to here (especially since I focused rather narrowly on visual interactions), but that doesn’t mean that we should avoid it, or that avoiding the topic will erase the ableism that is obviously present in these conversations. If this discussion “opens the door” to other issues, then I say, let it. Different forms of oppression interact in complex and often messy ways, but that doesn’t mean we should avoid the issue for fear of finding ourselves drawn into other debates as well.

  • spiralsheep

    I’m not talking about “one very specific instance”

    Then you’re probably appropriating blind people’s oppression by ablism to make a point about niqabi’s oppression by Islamophobia. Whether or not that’s a problematic appropriation/comparison is, of course, open to question.

    The idea that seeing someone’s face is necessary in educational or legal contexts, or that seeing each other’s faces is a vital part of interaction in Canadian/Western society, suggests that people who don’t see are necessarily going to be deficient teachers, lawyers/judges, or members of society.

    And/or suggests that people who’re used to not seeing faces sometimes process social interactions differently to people who are used to seeing people’s faces (this, of course, applies to different cultural norms as well as visual impairments), i.e. people’s brains literally develop with differing internal connections on a physical level.

    I agree with the general points you seem to be making though and it’s certainly an interesting perspective.

  • Gia Daniel, RN

    As Salaamu Alaikum wa Rahmaatullaahi
    There are so many holes in the argument that visualization is ALWAYS necessary. For the moment, I will defer the position of those who are deaf, but I do not deny their view.
    For the sighted and unsighted: We speak on the telephone. We listen to radio, CDs, tapes, and the like. Subhana Allaah al Azim, covert surveillance prides itself on what it is able to discover without seeing the speaker! For the argument of needing to see faces at all times to be valid, those above factors would themselves have to be invalidated.
    Now, concerning those whom Allaah has caused to be born or to become deaf. I do have concerns when I am communicating with them, if they are lip readers. I feel that it is upon me to make it possible for them to understand me, and try to remove all barriers for them, how can I teach, how can I give da’wah if I do not make things easy for them? How do I call myself a Muslimah if I make things difficult unnecessarily?
    The niqaab is my screen. I eat and drink in public with it down (alhamdulillaah for straws!). When I deal with the deaf, and I do, infrequently, when I am not working or otherwise in public when my niqaab is on, I angle myself so that most people will not see me, and lift the niqaab so that my face is visible. I then ask Allaah’s forgiveness for what I cannot help. That is always an option that we can avail ourselves of.

  • Nicole

    Salam alaikoum
    Love this article. Ma sha Allah

  • Suyuti

    Quick q. How many women wear the niqab in the UK?

  • Krista

    @ spiralsheep:

    I disagree with your comment about appropriation. I’m not trying to use this discussion on ableism to bolster the idea that a niqab ban is wrong. In fact, many anti-ban arguments have also included ableist elements, or have at least failed to challenge the ableism that they’re encountering. Regardless, even, of how one feels about the niqab, a lot of the discussion about it has contained the kinds of ableist elements that I described above, and that’s a problem in itself, not simply because of how those ideas impact the lives of people who wear niqab. I’m sorry if I seemed like I was using that concept only insofar as it served to support people who wear niqab.

  • artsy

    if credibility is a concern in a court room, yes, a blind person should not have a say in that case.
    the analogy does not work
    if the teacher wants to see the students mouth to help her with pronunciation then it is to say that a blind teacher cannot teach a language, which would be discriminatory.

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  • http://www.blogistan.co.uk/blog/ Yusuf Smith

    How many women wear the niqab in the UK?

    Many. Certainly a minority of those who wear hijab, but easily thousands, and heavily concentrated in the “safe” Muslim areas such as certain parts of south and east London and Birmingham, and places like Dewsbury in the north.

  • Simcha

    Needing visual cues for communication is not binary; there isn’t some clear divide of deaf=allow people to see your lips/non-deaf=leave niqab on. Many people are hard of hearing or have trouble processing audio. I normally have very little difficulty processing audio, but if someone covers hir face with hir hand, I will have much more difficulty understanding them. In a perfect world, a student having trouble understanding would be able to ask the teacher to see her lips, but sometimes students are intimidated and so on. It’s an issue, equally, for interacting with people in general as a niqab-wearer, since people with auditory processing disorders have an invisible disability, but some might make a distinction if, say, teaching language or lecturing in general is part of the job.

    None of this is to say that the niqab ought to be banned as such, and making such excuses is simply a manifestation of islamophobia, but perhaps it is a consideration of courtesy and an indication that the niqab privileges a certain class of able-bodied people to communicate with them.

  • Stacy

    As a blind person who has served on a federal jury, thank you for considering this perspective! It is true that blind people are often subject to the ridiculous arguement that if one can’t see someone’s face, how can that person be a counselor/psychologist/serve on a jurty, etc? Luckily, there are laws in place that give blind people a mechanism to combat this sort of discrimination even though it still exists. It’s simply a case of people not being able to comprehend the common sense solutions that are routinely employed everyday by people who do things differently than they do.

    FYI-There are several high-ranking blind judges throughout the United States and Canada as well as hundreds of blind lawyers. (See the National Association of Blind Lawyers.) I might add that 2 particularly high-ranking blind lawyers I know who work for the US government (DHS and DOJ) both wear the niquab. As far as language acquisition, countless blind students and professionals have both studied and taught foreign languages (I majored in French and Italian at the University of Minnesota; my fiance who is also blind is a high school Spanish teacher).

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