Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Masks and Perceptions

I saw a woman in a burqa today, the full on modest experience, everything covered except the eyes. I didn't personally feel threatened: why would I? She was clearly an elderly woman, carrying a couple of bags of shopping, walking with a stooped gait on the other side of the road. But I'd be lying if I didn't admit to a momentary flash of uncertainty.

I understand that in the Muslim culture, there is nothing negative in the perceptions of women in burqas. But in the West, we have been programmed by our culture to percieve a covered face as a threat.

When do we see people in masks, people that hide their faces? What sort of people are they? Well, generally they're the bad guy. Darth Vader. The Ku Klux Klan. Bank robbers in cowboy and gangster films, a handkerchief around their face or a pair of tights over it. Terrorists in modern day movies, playing with our preconceptions by dressing as clowns or Nixon so we don't know whether to laugh or fear. Psychotic killers with hockey masks and machetes at American teen camps in slasher flicks. Balaclava clad IRA members firing volleys of bullets over a coffin in a backstreet of Belfast.

Even if they are not definitively bad, they are at least sinister. Riot police who hide their faces (and their badge numbers) so they may continue to be above the law they are supposed to uphold. Genocidal Templars and Crusaders, slaughtering anyone who worshipped basically the same god in a different way, a different language. Medieval executioners with very large axes, whose masks are now popular with bondage practitioners (but that's a role of the mask I'd rather not get into). Scientists who wear their anti-contamination suits to sites of nuclear accidents or outbreaks of some infectious disease.

Surgeons wear masks, too, of course, but we never see them. By the time they put on the mask to operate on us, we are already anaesthetised, so they probably don't count. But if I did wake up in a hospital bed, and all the medical professionals were wearing masks, I would be very nervous about why they didn't want to breathe the same air as me. The mask does not really instill confidence.

There are a few masked people on the side of truth and justice, of course. Batman, Robocop, Spiderman, etc. But they tend to be fictional superheroes with secret identities to protect. Generally, if someone is wearing a mask, it is because they have something to hide. Our instinctive response is distrust and suspicion. Yes, people wear masks on Hallowe'en, but that's because the purpose of the exercise is to cause fear. Masks are good at that.

So when we see a person with their face covered, all of our conditioned instincts put us in an alert state. We perceive a threat, become defensive, in some cases become aggressive as well. This is not good for inter-cultural relations.

I don't have any answers. I think it's going to take time until Britain accepts Muslims, just as they came to accept Indians and Afro-Caribbeans. But we'll do it eventually. It might take a generation, but we'll get there. We've done it so many times already, and we're all the stronger for it. As any biogeneticist could tell you, strength comes from diversity.


  1. Perceptions:

    I agree with everything you have said, about society, masks, etc but I would like to share my perception on another issue I feel may also be responsible for your momentary flash of uncertainty, (and everyone elses)

    Whether we are aware of it or not, a large percentage of human communication is non verbal, we pick things up from a persons expressions, their body language, the shape of their mouth, are they joking or serious, happy or sad, angry or calm, millions of pieces of information are passed and processed from all forms of non verbal communication. For instance, you spot a friend at some distance, with their back to you, walking through a busy town centre. You notice familier things about them, their body shape, hair colour, gait, clothes, and somewhere in your brain it sparks recognition. But could you recognise your best friend if they were walking at any distance in front of you wearing a burqa? I think not.
    If you pause for a moment, have a cup of tea in a town cafe, (preferably outside) and you watch people walking by, total strangers, you can tell things about them from the expression on their face, Judge their mood, and all the other things i have already mentioned and more. When we see someone in a burqa we are not able to see any of this information, we are left blind, and this feels threatening to us as it is so unfamilier.

    We dont know how to comunicate with just a pair of eyes and no other clues at all. Most of us do not look directly into anothers eyes when talking, it feels invasive and is uncomfortable for both parties if held too long, we glance, but we are also looking at their smile, their raised eyebrow and all the other physical ways in which we talk, it is not natural for us to have only a pair of eyes on show.
    And so i believe that we are uncomfortable with the fact that the burqa blocks our natural perceptions, which our instincts use to communicate and to protect us from potential danger, and thats why we have these feelings. Not just because of society, but also because we are human, and it is in our DNA, our instincts, to be wary of that which we cannot read, and therefor cannot understand.

  2. I couldn't find the right words at the beginning of my post, what i had wanted to say, was, that i wished to elaborate on something you had mentioned, but it didn't come to me until after i pressed the post button, as I was so busy trying to keep up with my thoughts, i really must learn to type!
    .... Sorry

  3. You have raised some excellent points. We do look for non-verbal communication when we deal with others. We are a strange species - possibly the only one where showing the teeth is a good thing, not the sign of an imminent attack. I read an excellent book called Being Digital by Nicholas Negroponte, about technology and the future, and he raised a similar point as you: eyes are not just input devices. They communicate frustration, sarcasm, sexual readiness, joy, wonder and a million other things. But it is not just the eyeballs that do this, it is the eyebrows as well.

    And yes, you're also right about the mouth. Are people smiling to show that they're joking about what they say, to take the sting out of their words? Are they snarling, to emphasise their anger or whatever? What about the nose? Some people turn up their nose to show revulsion, or have it raised involuntarily when they smile. All of these things are necessarily hidden by the burqa.

    Maybe that's the point. Maybe the burqa is there to prevent women from becoming more involved in a society that often seems to exclude them. Maybe Muslim men have the some problems that Westerners do with knowing what's behind the veil.