Unveiling Prejudice: An Encounter in the Classroom
CAIRO–I was about five minutes into teaching the second class, and I was proud of myself for having remembered each student’s name from the previous week. And then a new student arrived. I tried to keep my facial expression neutral as she walked into the class and sat down. I introduced myself to her and asked her to introduce herself to me and to the rest of the class. I had never encountered a student like her, and I was panicking deep down inside.
Her face was covered.
I have to admit that finding a student with a full face veil at the American University in Cairo class (even if it was a continuing education class) shocked me. I was raised in Kuwait where I saw face-veiled women all the time, so the sight does not generally shock me or scare me. I know some well-educated women who choose to cover their faces. However, I also went to AUC, and while I was an undergraduate there, face veils were banned on campus. It was a long debate, and the reasons given for the ban were security-related, but I do remember some academics saying they could not teach someone whose face they could not see. How would they know that person was learning, they would ask, how would they interact? Having lived in the United States and the United Kingdom, I understand people’s discomfort in dealing with a woman whose face is veiled. (I was reminded of this by the recent debate in the United Kingdom about whether medical staff should be allowed to wear face veils.) Actually, even in Egypt, most people I know are critical of face veils for various reasons.
But as someone who has taught and studied online, using mostly text (rather than visual) media, I can assure you that you can teach someone without ever seeing their face, you can learn from people you have never seen. Like almost everyone reading this, I have had long and important conversations on the phone, so we all know we can communicate quite well without seeing someone’s face, regardless of claims about facial expressions and body language being more important than words.
All these analogies aside, I can speak specifically about the case of having a face-veiled student in my own class. I can talk specifically about my own assumptions and prejudices, and how having this student in my class proved them all wrong.
I expected a woman who covers her face to be relatively quiet and introverted. This student was highly interactive and very assertive. She was one of the students who participated the most in my class, and she participated with passion and intelligence. When we discussed gender inequality, I saw the feminist side of her.
I expected to encounter problems having this student work in mixed-gender groups, for example, that she might be reluctant to work with male students. No such problems occurred.
I expected not to be able to understand her reactions during classes because I could not see her face. In reality, there were several instances where I was able to sense her anger, her humor, and her interest, through her eyes, tone of voice, and body language. I know I was right in my assessments, because in some cases we exchanged words after class, or emails (and once, a note) confirming she had those feelings.
As I told this student at the end of our course: she is not responsible for representing all other women who wear a face veil, just because she is one of them. In the same vein, I cannot generalize that every other face-veiled woman would be as participatory a student as this one was. I know that during the last political conflicts in Egypt, there were face-veiled women protesting on June 30 against the Muslim Brotherhood, and face-veiled women protesting pro-Muslim Brotherhood. I know that you cannot assume that someone covers their face for a particular reason, and that having done so, they have particular personality traits, political affiliation, or particular values.
To be completely honest, I am not sure how comfortable I would be teaching a class that contained several face-veiled women (would I be able to tell them apart?)… but I thought I’d share my experience having taught one such student – and it was very positive.
When I asked my student permission to publish this article, she agreed enthusiastically, saying she hoped the article would “help some people see that behind that veil there is an ordinary human being who can be a part of the country.” And that is the crux of this article. It is not about the political, religious or social implications of face veils. It is about accepting women who choose to wear these veils as individuals, as human beings. I wanted to share my experience of overcoming my personal prejudice by having the enriching and transformative experience of having this student in my class.
Readers can follow Maha Bali on Twitter at Bali_maha.