Opinion: Face-veils – What would John Stuart Mill say?

John Stuart MillA court case and a Birmingham school have thrown the dilemma of clothing choices versus personal interaction requirements into the limelight again. It seems to me that the liberal response to this is fairly clear and quite easy to calculate.

Let’s start with some basic facts:

1. Facial expression is a vital part of communication. Some research puts over 50% of human communication as carried in facial expression.

2. Facial identification is the primary – and in most cases only – form of human identification.

Liberals believe in freedom of expression and religion. But that freedom has limits where it impinges on the ability of others to go about their life (“Your freedom ends where my freedom begins” – sometimes attributed to John Stuart Mill, or Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes). Therefore liberals can construct two positions from the basic facts:

First, anyone providing a human service to another that requires communication has a reasonable right to expect that facial expression will be visible during communication, and the right to refuse to perform without it. Venues providing such service have the right to set rules on their premises that declare they will not serve/service those who refuse to allow facial communication.

Second, anyone providing a human service to another that requires identification has a reasonable right to expect that the face will be visible, and the right to refuse to perform without it. Venues providing such service have the right to set rules on their premises that declare they will not serve/service those who refuse to allow facial visibility.

Now, when we add in a little more John Stuart Mill, who reminds us that nothing shall be banned unless evidence of its harm to others can be produced, those two liberal positions in turn lead quite clearly to a couple of basic, liberally sound rules:

First, there is no defensible argument for banning face veils in the general public outdoors.

Second, there is a sound liberal argument for allowing any public institution that can demonstrate the need for personal communication or identification to be allowed to set a rule requiring faces to be visible on the premises.

The two rules would clearly allow schools to ban face coverings (during lessons would probably be enough); likewise courts for those involved in proceedings. To suggest that communication, including facial communication, isn’t extremely important in schools and courts is just silly. I would also expect the same rules in banks, etc., for safety and fraud reasons. I would not expect such rules in shops, libraries, shopping centres, etc. If places such as shops started bringing in such rules for customers just browsing, I would expect these be challenged in court and ruled unlawful as neither of these rules is satisfied.

* Dr Mark Wright is a councillor in Bristol and was the 2015 general election Parliamentary candidate for Bristol South.

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  • “Venues providing such service have the right to set rules on their premises that declare they will not serve/service those who refuse to allow facial communication.”

    The ‘basic facts’ support no such assertion. You have communicated to me without facial expression by using a keyboard. I’ve just been listening listened to ‘The Life Scientific’ on Radio 4 and was perfectly able to comprehend a quite erudite conversation taking place without needing visual cues. It is perfectly possible to communicate more than adequately and efficiently using speech alone. Indeed, it could be argued that the listener will be more inclined to actually listen to what is being said, so for an organisation to refuse to communicate with someone with their face covered is a form of absolute discrimination and one that should appal any liberal.

  • I agree with Jeremy Browne. It seems some liberals place the values of communities (which, in effect often means the values of elderly men who dominate such communities) above the interests of individuals. As liberals it is our role to ensure that they are not oppressed by the conformity of ‘their’ cultures i.e. the culture they have imposed on them from birth.

  • It might help if this wasn’t seen as a ban or restriction, but a simple requirement. The principle should be that in certain circumstances, and for good reasons, people’s faces are required to be visible. In a similar way, in certain circumstances people are required to stand or sit or be quiet or wear clothes or attend a school or a court or a police station. These aren’t an infringement of any fundamental right not to do those things. They are part of living in a society under the rule of law.

    With such a requirement for face visibility, the question of burqas, niqabs and hoodies being banned doesn’t arise. People can wear what they like so long as their faces are visible when necessary.

  • ‘@Dave – The point of “community oppression” is a fair one to raise… but if you want to impose a ban you will have to provide sound evidence that harm is being caused. I.e. not just evidence that there is pressure to conform (pressure to conform with various norms exists in every society), but that doing so causes harm to others. I don’t think liberals should go down the road of assuming that adults are not in control of their own actions and need protecting from their own decisions (e.g. to wear a veil or not). That is a very dangerous road.’

    The idea of needing protection for their own decisions misses the point – its that they are not THEIR decisions that this calls for a debate. Even if we ask Muslim women if they wish to wear the full veil and they say yes should we agree to it? What if they have grown up in a community so closed off that they have not been allowed to listen to different views? Can we really say that they are their decisions or more a reflection of what a group of people have told them? Do they have autonomy if they never had the chance of develop it because even when they were out in society their community has demanded that they cut themselves off? You are right all communities have conformity – women in the West expecting to look like model etc – but isn’t that an argument for reacting against it, for, say, bringing in laws to stop airbrushing on posters etc, rather than saying its their decision to try and look like models?
    To look at it in this way: If you were wearing a full veil every time you went out of your home would you think your interests had been harmed? I would. For a start, I don’t think I’d be able to learn as much or interact with people from a range of backgrounds. But then I’m a cosmopolitan, I don’t think its healthy to stick to one type of culture unlike some.

  • I am amazed by how easily prejudices are covered in grandiose, fallacious philosopical justifications. The fact is that veils had long been part of *British* culture; many people yet alive can remember when they were worn as a fashion statement; a few old-fashioned people may still wear veils as a sign of mourning. Questions of “communication and identification” did not become an issue until the veil became a symbol of a culture and religion that is seen as alien by many and is hated by some. The *sole* purpose of these bans is not to “protect women” or “save the children” or to improve communication, but to further stigmatise an already-stigmatised group of people, to let them know that the British public and British government consider them strange and inferior beings.

  • ‘@Dave – as liberals we really have to start from the assumption that all sane adults are the masters of their own decisions. In my opinion it is extremely sexist to argue that adult women who say they are wearing what they want are not strong enough to make their own decisions about what to wear, whether this means the wearing of veils or the wearing of mini-skirts and wonder-bras – I don’t think we would ever assume such a thing of men’.

    I don’t think its true that, as liberals, we must assume all individuals are their own masters. There is a rich liberal tradition which recognises this – Mill was part of it. Should we not make it a crime to wear a seat belt? After all, surely adults have a right to choose to wear a seat belt, especially when they are not harming anyone? When I know I want a cigarette but also realise its bad for me and give in to my base urge to smoke, even though my higher self does not want me to, am I my own master? Liberals believe individuals have the capacity to be their own masters but that not all are – notice this important difference. If you have read Mill you should know this. Not all are their own masters because of things like a lack of education and social oppression. That’s why we, liberals, support the latter and oppose the former. We do no favours to people who lack autonomy to assume that they do. Liberals don’t believe that we have achieved the ‘end stage’ where all are autonomous, if anything liberalism is about progress – its about continual change and advancement, its not stationary as you seem to think.

    Sad to see you’ve resorted to ad hominem points. I could do that to and suggest its sexist to support covering women up, because it MUST be their decision after all, but not men. Furthemore, the problem of expectations for how men should dress, look etc according to social norms also applies and is a problem – the rise of steroid use amongst young men is an example. I also think these issues should be addressed so stop throwing around names. My criticism is not that young women are not strong enough to make their own decisions, but that their communities and social norms are so strong that they are merely following norms and customs – both Muslims women, western women and, shock horror, men too . If you had understood ‘On Liberty’ you would have realised that was what Mill himself was arguing against – the triumph of dull, passive middle class money getting norms in his Victorian society which had prevented individuals from forming their own personalities and ensuring their own self development.

  • Correction – support education and oppose social conformity.

  • David – why so eager to defend the rights of minority groups to oppress ‘their’ own members?

  • jedibeeftrix 17th Sep '13 - 12:23pm

    good article, much to agree with. Thank you.

  • ‘Here’s a hint guys, when you’re lining up with UKIP then you’re not taking the liberal stance’.
    This is just intellectual lazy. If you have an argument to make, make it but don’t resort to this type of nonsence. UKIP supported the yes to AV campaign, just like us. Where does that leave your way of looking at the world?

  • Philip Williams 17th Sep '13 - 2:09pm

    Quite paradoxical that Mill is being used to justify such traditional behavior.
    But it seems a bit difficult to know what we are discussing – people conforming to their community’s norms through free will, or through inappropriate pressure, or choosing to reject the wider community and its norms?
    What are the numbers? Where’s the research? TV programs have often covered the subject by interviewing women who choose to wear the niqaab although their older female relatives do not. Last night’s Channel 4 News couldn’t find wearers to be interviewed on camera but reported that off camera more than half had said it was political as well as religious.
    They would seem to be making a statement harking back to an era when men were protected from evil thoughts when seeing a women’s face, and decent women of good virtue dressed properly.
    To what degree is the increased use of niqaab youthful rebellion, a deliberate rejection of society’s norm? As often, possibly offensive to a lot of people, but something Mill may have approved of, at least on one level.

  • Ruth Bright 17th Sep '13 - 7:10pm

    Such an interesting article Mark. Would anything in Mill’s “The Subjection of Women” shed any light on this? I do recall that Mill defends upper class Victorian women from being labelled as “hysterics” (or victims of their wombs) when they became mentally ill. He more or less says who would not go mad confined in crinolines and bustles and stuck at home all the time without any role or purpose.

    It fascinates me how the language of denigrating women has hardly changed NB David Laws ‘ patronising interview on The Westminster Hour where he told us that he thought Naomi Smith was “hysterical”.

    Not many women are commenting on the veil in these threads. I wonder what Harriet Taylor (Mill’s co-writer?) would have thought.

  • Mill also supported giving university graduates a vote worth six times as much as a peasant or factory labourer. Just because something was brought up in On Liberty doesn’t make it appropriate in a modern society where we value people and their rights to make their own decisions more than the thinkers of the 19th century.

  • Malcolm Todd 17th Sep '13 - 9:32pm

    Excellent article.
    It’s tempting to engage with the arguments made by “Dave”, but he seems to be repeating arguments that had already been effectively refuted by Mark, so there’s little point.

    I do think it’s naive to say that Jeremy Browne was “just calling for a debate”, as if that were a neutral thing to do. A leading politician and self-declared liberal has no business pretending to neutrality on an issue of such principle — calling for a debate (which is distinct from joining in with a debate) is just a mealy-mouthed way of saying “This is something I think we should consider doing.”

  • Oh, and Mark, I find it interesting that you are asking others to provide evidence for their beliefs while providing none for your own. Could you please provide an author and peer-reviewed publish date for your 50% assertion?

    Steve is right and I believe you are mistaken – the “research” of the last 20 years does show that facial communication is useful between Western speakers, *but* is only a small part of a wider range of nonverbal communication that aids comprehension. Particularly for judging emotion and intent, the eyes (visible with a nose-and-below niqaab, and actually several variants of the gauzy full-face burqa too) portray the biggest benefit to the subject or recipient. See for instance the readily available book by Samovar et al. (2007), who identify 6 useful universal facial expressions, none of which are unique or only transmissible by the face.

    It saddens me that anyone in this party can contemplate becoming fashion police. No, you do not have an automatic right to another woman’s face, unless she consents, or in a clear security situation such as a petrol station, bank, court, or airport. Arguments can and should be made to protect those who need to be seen or unseen, and already are in respect to (for instance) lip reading, or preventing juries from appearance prejudice by offering evidence giving by telepresence or behind a screen, as well as in legal precedent for teachers only where it conclusively affects performance (Azmi vs Kirklees). You say you respect these lines, but then profess an admiration for UKIP and the Sun in hoping to go much further – perhaps they say they only want to support a ban in these areas, but the subtext of the threat of the veil falling over Britain is hard to ignore, and runs to unintentional comedy when they propose allowing a veil outside only in park bylaws. The European Court of Human Rights is clear that an article 9 right to freedom of religion may only be infringed by society on the grounds of security, safety, crime, and liberty of others – see Judge Murphy’s headline grabbing judgement, specifically point 47 (http://www.judiciary.gov.uk/Resources/JCO/Documents/Judgments/The%20Queen%20-v-%20D%20%28R%29.pdf) and articulated by caselaw earlier in the judgment.

    I do not see any kind of presumption that follows into a blanket ban in schools. Indeed you could argue your logic should apply to white shopkeepers preventing black or asian customers from using services, since their cultural communication norms are different and can be interpreted as difficult to understand. I am sure you did not mean this but there must be a better argument founded in principle than this. Many uniform regulations in schools already discourage nonconformity from a white English basepoint in regulating piercings, haircuts, and particular clothing – a ban on veils is certainly a logical progression but not subsequently liberal or democratic.

    To anyone seeking to comment and still reading this despite my self-righteousness, please take a long look at your own unconscious prejudices before taking a view on this topic – perhaps you do not think it possible that a woman would choose herself to take the veil in a modern world obsessed with shallow appearances and unhealthy body image, and perhaps it is not something you want your daughter to do, but it happens.

  • daft ha'p'orth 17th Sep '13 - 11:59pm

    @robson 17th Sep ’13 – 9:35pm
    “Oh, and Mark, I find it interesting that you are asking others to provide evidence for their beliefs while providing none for your own. Could you please provide an author and peer-reviewed publish date for your 50% assertion?”

    You could’ve looked this up yourself, but the 50+% probably comes from a common overbroad interpretation of Mehrabian’s rule. The famous study in question actually focuses on a very specific couple of cases. It’s a bit challenging to speak in percentages about comprehension but it plays better to the public than a more accurate description, which would need to go into some detail about the specific impacts of impaired or non-existent body language on specific aspects of that communication.

  • daft ha'p'orth 18th Sep '13 - 12:48am

    Also, @robson, re “– perhaps you do not think it possible that a woman would choose herself to take the veil in a modern world obsessed with shallow appearances and unhealthy body image, and perhaps it is not something you want your daughter to do, but it happens.”

    ‘Take the veil?’ in ‘…a world obsessed with shallow appearances?’ You sure there isn’t a hint of romanticisation/idealisation in your characterisation here?

  • Michael Parsons 18th Sep '13 - 12:45pm

    How come women have been sacked and lost cases in the Human Rights court for displaying religious symbols such as a cross, or for offering to pray for someone (not making that person as such pray); but now people cloaked in religious garb and going around calling down the bessings of allah etc are claimed not to be inflicting an intolerable intrusion on non-believers rights? insulting their sensibilities?especially in places of education or care?
    Isn’t the debate really no more than tomfoolery got up by special pleading for this or that religious minority? which should of course be supressed by the courts along with any other intrusive expression of faith in a country sustaining secular liberty and where religion is by-and-large privatised?

  • Malcolm Todd 18th Sep '13 - 1:48pm

    @Michael Parsons

    If anyone had suggested that there should be a law against wearing Christian religious symbols etc. then you’d have a point.
    Neither the OP nor anyone else that I can see is arguing that their should be an absolute right to be veiled in all circumstances, for that matter.
    Nor have “non-believers’ rights” not to witness other people’s professions of faith ever been a legal principle recognised by the courts or advocated by anyone with pretensions to being taken seriously.

    So I’m really not sure what the inconsistency is that you implicitly claim to see.

  • I struggle to see what the precise liberal position on this should be. All of us must start from an inclination towards freedom of choice as to what people wear but I must confess that I would be very troubled if that choice were to lead to a great increase in the practice of obscuring faces – even in the street or open spaces.

    We will all agree that greater and greater integration (while respecting cultural differences) of ethnic and religious minorities and majority communities is highly beneficial to all of us. Does it really help this process not to be able to recognise your neighbour in the street or the local shop etc.? Not even able to say “hallo XXXX, how are you today? “

  • Malcolm Todd 18th Sep '13 - 4:08pm

    I quite agree that social cohesion is helped more by being able to see one another’s faces than the reverse, and that a society in which we recognise and acknowledge our neighbours is a desirable thing. However, I don’t understand why this makes you “struggle to see what the precise liberal position on this should be”, if by “this” you mean passing laws against people covering their faces. You can’t justify an illiberal policy on the grounds that you believe it would be a more liberal society if no one did what you seek to ban them from doing! I’m not sure that I’m much of a liberal, really (I just don’t do “ism”s very well); but I get that much.

  • Michael Parsons 19th Sep '13 - 11:20am

    @Malcolm Todd
    Well, Ms Eweida had her job threatend by BA for displaying a cross though Sikhs and others did display emblems of faith at work, and Ms Chaplln lost her job as a geriatric nurse, to name two cases that went to CHR; and others exist where an offer to pray etc have resulted in dismissal or threats. Among those active in such a stand against religious displays are the National Secular Society, which as far as I know does not argue for the dismissal of Islamic folk in the same way.
    I suggest perhaps a far wider issue lurks here. There are it seems 19 or so UK areas where Sharia Law increasingly predomiates,(for example women are harassed for wearing a short skirt) and there arises the issue as to how far, as citizens of a free-choice secular state, individuals should not indeed be forced to step outside the confines of their faith in the public arena; and so be given and experience the fundamental choices a free society offers. This issue cannot be ducked indefintely, because in areas such as treatment of women, free marriage-choice, gender choice, punishment style, and dress, the conflicts with British Law and our hard-won rights as democratic citizens can only increase. Nor does this mean that Islam, with its strong anti-capitalist roots (e.g. against charging interest ) would necessarily be entirely hostile to greater liberty.

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