Face Covering and Communication

Okay. I am getting onto a soap box. The ‘religious neutrality law’ passed in the province of Quebec last week. I find it repugnant, divisive and ridiculous. The most controversial part of it requires people to uncover their faces when providing or receiving public services.  CBC News story is here.

I wear a face covering in public most of the time. I’m an expert in communication, especially non-verbal communication. I believe I have a unique perspective. And I have something to say about all this.

My face covering isn’t religious. Can I still wear it?

A Bit of History:

The original law came to be in response to a few situations that got into the news. One was a situation where a public employer had gotten complaints about a staff member at a public office (Passport office, maybe?) who had her face covered. Then there was a pool in Montreal who decided to have a ‘women’s only” time at the pool so that women from the growing muslim community could go swimming without having to wear coverings. I honestly don’t understand why that is a problem (the world isn’t perfect… but I think that we can all agree that swimming in a burka or niqab is a very poor plan).

The original law said that anyone providing or receiving public services should not wear any overt sign of their religion. At first blush, encouragement of secularism within the civil service seems laudable, but it’s impossible to do. So now they are trying this watered down version where people aren’t supposed to have their faces covered. The irony being that it becomes MORE racist this way, not less.

The first attempt was impossible to implement in any practical way. I often wear a necklace with a Thor’s hammer and/or a cross. I’m neither Pagan nor Christian. They  are representative of my culture, and have remarkably similar weight to me symbolically. I put a similar weight on the maple leaf. If anything, I’m way more fanatical about Canada than I am about any organized religion.  So, which ones can I wear in public?

This narrower law has the same problem, but seems to be more palatable because it only refers to “others”, not themselves. It is incomplete- it gives no clear definitions or guidelines. Other arguments about face coverings have come into play- from the public, the media and even the lawmakers themselves. They try and say it’s about security, or communication, and it’s pissing me off.

A few things to clear away. Face coverings need to be removed for identification in a security situation (getting on an airplane, getting a driver’s license, picking up your passport, etc.). I don’t think anybody has any issue with that. (If it’s a Muslim religious issue, it’s a very simple matter to have a female officer, even in a private setting if needed). I will happily remove my mask to be identified. I have to hold my breath, so I am very conscious of how long it takes. It has never taken more than 30 seconds. Once I’ve been identified, the security ‘problem’ is a non-issue. I don’t need to keep the face covering off, yet the law makers have said that it is to be for the duration of the ‘service’.

I used to think that not being able to see someones face would greatly reduce our ability to judge the veracity of what that person is saying. I had the sense that testifying in court, for instance, may be one situation where showing your face would be required. Studies and my experiences show that the opposite is true. It’s much easier to get our mouth and nose to lie than our eyes.  A skilled con artist can look like they’re smiling, their words sound right, they match the face, but the eyes are much harder to fake. When you remove the distraction of the mouth and nose, it’s easier to identify when someone’s word says don’t match their voice or eyes (which usually means they’re lying). If you have women’s rights, especially Muslim women’s rights on your mind, it is ridiculously counterproductive to make it harder for women to testify in court. Asking a woman who has worn a niqab all her adult life to take it off for court is like asking me to come to court in my pajamas. It’s super comfy at home, it covers the exact same areas of my body as clothes do. But in court I’d feel naked, exposed.

I would argue that we really do need to be able to see someone’s eyes in some communication situations. There is a difference with looking someone in the eye. Scams are much easier over the phone or Internet because of it. It’s a non-starter though. The number of Canadian women who have a full burka (with mesh over the eyes) is very, very small. That practice is going away all on it’s own; it’s considered to be oppressive by the vast majority of Muslims in Canada. Practically, too, people have learned that it is a bad idea to cut off your peripheral vision in a society with a lot of cars.

I’ve also heard some of the politicians say that it will address criminality, especially the ‘shit disturbers’ who go to crowded events to incite riots. One of the worst (and early) times it happened was in Vancouver, so the topic has come up a lot here. There are already laws in place that cover this… using a disguise in the commission of a crime (I don’t know the exact wording) is a criminal offense. An additional federal law was put in place in 2013 to make it easier for police officer to detain people in riot situations- before the riot itself starts. It’s pretty obvious when a bunch of teenagers are disguising themselves for nefarious reasons. Again, if I’m wearing a mask, it only takes a moment to pull it aside if I need to identify myself to an individual police officer. There are good reasons to hide your identity from the media and general public when protesting- such as protecting your family or your job. Protecting people’s right to protest is vital for a functioning society. I would argue that concealing your identity from the media is often a critical part of freedom of speech.

I have heard politicians say that a full face covering makes you more anonymous, harder to follow in a crowd via cameras… Not here, it doesn’t! I’m a billion times more obvious with my mask on than without. We notice things that are different. Criminals want to blend in, not draw attention to themselves. Remember the nuns in Sister Habit with Whoopi Goldberg? Nuns at the catholic school, sure. Nuns in a Casino- kinda obvious! Highly entertaining when the bad guys go after the wrong nun. But seriously, how often does that actually happen? What a ridiculous explanation. I have the legal requirement to identify myself to police officers, but not to surveillance cameras. There was a woman on CBC proudly wearing a vivid maroon flowing niquab, she’s not blending into any crowds, trust me.

Being an SLP, I’ve been consciously observing how my communication has changed since I started wearing the mask. It definitely affects  my communication. The biggest challenge is that it muffles my voice, so I have to speak quite loudly. That isn’t an issue for people wearing a niquab- they haven’t got several layers of fabric and filters. The other thing I noticed was that some of my cues for sarcasm or jokes got ‘lost’ if they can’t see my whole face. I’ve adapted. I use more eye expressions (rolling eyes, raised eyebrows); I actually make a small sound when I laugh, move my shoulders more, use hand gestures, etc. People who wear a face covering adjust their communication to fit- as do their communication partners. Surgeons and nurses do it all the time.  It’s not like you need a lot of nuanced communication to pay a parking ticket or get on a bus.

Nobody has mentioned the health needs of people like myself, or indeed of what could happen in a public health crisis. What are they going to do if they have an air quality issue or a SARS outbreak and public health recommendations are to wear a mask in public…?? As if they would discourage people who have the flu from opting to put on a mask?   And in case you want to say that religion is less important than health, I personally agree. But a lot of  people put themselves in harm’s way all the time in the name of religion.

Around the world, there are many religious ‘classes’ (castes, orders, etc) who wear face or head coverings. They usually started for practical reasons- a nun’s habit keeps her hair free from lice, a Jain’s five-layered cloth over his mouth stops flies, and a whole lot of pathogens, too. Arabic peoples wear head coverings to keep the sand out of their face (and hair, and ears, and nose…just like those in the wild west covered their mouths with bandanas). Those practices become identifying; a head and/or face veil is cultural as well as religious. Orthodox Jews and many Eastern Orthodox cultures still expect women and men to cover their head in public and/or in a religious setting. Yazidis women wear an ‘Arabian’ style headscarf- but they aren’t Muslim. So, is it about religion , security, or communication then….? Where is the line? How can we possibly draw it? Frankly, it is needless and divisive to even try.

If I still lived in Montreal, I’d love to ride the bus with a few muslim women and a hidden camera. Would anyone ask me to remove my face covering? What about if I added a hijab, a mantilla or a tichel? Does that make my face mask religious? I’d love to contrast it with a  woman with darker skin adding on a pollution or allergy mask. I’m not really someone who inspires viral ideas, but perhaps it would be fun to start a project posting photos asking the question “Is this face covering religious?”.

What about now? Is my face covering religious?

{An aside here- I was going to take a bunch of pictures using my Mother’s scarves, which I hold very dear. . I took all of two shots. The leftover perfume on them, even with the mask cinched up tight, got me before I knew it. What a terrible photograph! Look at those allergy shiners!}

This law is poorly veiled racism. The faster that veil is pulled aside, the better.