A few years ago our college, Sapir, made headlines in Israel. A woman professor confronted one of the Muslim women students in her class, who was wearing a veil. The professor told the student that she would have to leave the class, if she did not remove the veil since it created a barrier, preventing the two from having a real "teacher-student" relationship.
Later on, the professor stated that she had acted out of feminist ideology. She believed that the student (and indeed all Muslim women who wear the niqab) do so because she was forced to by her male-dominated society, and not out of any real choice of her own.
Two years ago, on the first day of school, when I walked into my class of Introduction to Psychology, a women student came up to me and said hello. I am ashamed to say, that I jumped a bit, for she too was covered from head to foot in black, and I could only see her eyes. She greeted me with "Boker tov (Good Morning) Dr. Julia" and I mumbled boker tov back, but was definitely a bit shaken.
Why did the professor find it so hard to accept one of her students who was wearing a veil and why did I find it so unsettling in my class? While I did not tell this student that she had to remove the veil if she wanted to remain in my class, it troubled me on a number of levels - on the visual/emotional (I could only see a body completely covered in black, and it looked frightening), on the cognitive level (I had no signs or clues that I could read to understand who I was speaking to), and on the social (since I did not have experience in how to create a social relation with someone whose face and body I could not see).
A few days later this student saw me at the bookstore and also wished me well. I hope that I jumped less.
I did not see the student again, for she dropped out of the program. OR rather, perhaps she stopped wearing the veil and I did not recognize her (since there were 120 students in the class and I did not know any of their names the first week, either explanation is a possibility).
Not seeing her again - or not knowing if I did indeed see her again, but did not recognize her - helped me understand why on the cognitive level I could logically explain why I was disturbed by the veil. If I could not visually identify my students, then I would not be able to know, for example, who was taking the exam (perhaps someone else came in her/their place, since I would have no way of knowing who was underneath the clothes). Since such body covering could lead to academic dishonesty, I had every right to demand that I be able to see the face of my students.
But is this so? Or is such logic-making, just a way for me/us to reduce our sense of cognitive dissonance.
I also have blind students who do not see me, or their fellow students. Does this preclude them from enrolling in school, taking exams and writing papers and having discussions with me and with their peers? Can we make a rule that I - the professor - have to be able to see them but they do not have to see me? Somehow, this seems like discrimination.
And what if I were to have severe eyesight problems and no longer be able to see my students? Would this preclude me from continuing my academic work? If I were fired for such a reason, wouldn't this be discrimination?
Choosing to cover up, choosing not to look, choosing not to see, choosing not to try to understand, not being able to see - these are things we all do. All of us choose at different times of our lives what to wear, to whom we want to expose different parts of ourselves, what we want to see, what we want to understand, and what we prefer to ignore. It is easier to ignore some people than others - for example, it is easier for non-Muslims to ignore/not see Muslims, especially those who choose to wear the hijab or the niqab. It is easier for secular Jews to not see religious Jews, for they make us uncomfortable. It is easier for Orthodox Jews not to see secular Jews, for we make them uncomfortable.
And the list goes on.
I have not yet decided if I am okay with Muslim women students coming to class covered completely, except for their eyes. I am still struggling with this issue. But I do know that if my resistance comes from my stereotypes or prejudices, then I need to overcome these. And that whatever the institutional decision about this might be, in my classrooms, I have to be aware that prejudice and discrimination may not only be expressed by my students, but also by me. Inshalla/b'ezrat ha Shem/God willing, I will be able to be honest with myself about this and work toward looking inward, and not judging the outward.
And a great interview on the topic...