Last semester I went through an experience I'd never gone through before in my teaching career: I taught a student whose face I couldn't see. The reason? She was from Saudi Arabia, and she was wearing a niqab, that part of her all-black burqa that covered her face from the bridge of the nose down.
The class was an English as a second language class, and Sara (let's call her) was there under the auspices of Saudi Arabia's generous scholarship program for international study. The program arose out of a 2005 meeting between Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah (now King) and President George W. Bush to find ways to build understanding between the two cultures after the September 11 attacks.
The number of Saudi students in the United States has grown every year since the scholarship program began, and today some 70,000 Saudis are studying here. While initially only men took advantage of the program, now 20 percent of Saudis here are women.
The several Saudi women who came before Sara and ended up in my classroom had adopted an ordinary headscarf while on U.S. soil. Sara in her niqab is a trailblazer.
In 2010, France banned such face coverings amid much contention, and a year later Belgium did too. In September of last year, Birmingham Metropolitan College in the U.K. banned face coverings for its students, but quickly backtracked. The Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences in the U.S. did the same thing--banned, then backtracked.
With the number of women wearing a niqab likely to increase in the coming years, and with the experience of France in mind, it's time for the United States to get its thoughts in order regarding the niqab and burqa. With our long history of hammering out wide boundaries of personal liberty, the United States is uniquely qualified to set a standard for how these traditional, ultra-conservative Muslim forms of dress can be integrated into a free, non-Muslim society. We have a modest opportunity to show the world how it's done.
To clarify: At issue is not any garment that covers the head, of which there are many styles, but one that covers the face, of which there are really only two: the niqab and the burqa.
In France, the ban was instituted on the basis that such clothing was oppressive to women. Opponents argued that denying women a right to wear an article of clothing was itself oppressive.
We can reject France's rationale for the law almost out of hand, simply because it must be acknowledged that at least some women wear these garments out of personal choice, not family pressure. And our country is about nothing if not personal choice.
Generally lost in France's heated national argument was the issue of public security. After having had Sara in my class, I believe that is the only issue that the U.S. can rationally concern itself with. And it seems to me we can adequately handle security without any governing body, whether it's a state legislature or a local school board, taking aim at the niqab.
Eleven states and the District of Columbia already ban face coverings, either outright or under certain conditions. I am no lawyer, but to me these laws seem a motley bunch, long on words but short on sense, and ill-equipped to provide actual security impartially in the modern world. Three specifically exempt Mardi Gras revelers, one of them also including "minstrel troupes." One state tosses into its ban any "unnatural attire." Only two give exemptions for religious beliefs.
The only good thing about these bans is that they're evidently rarely enforced. Sara was technically breaking North Carolina law every time she walked out of her apartment.
These laws probably need to be revisited. In preparing ourselves for our encounter with the niqab, we need to ask what genuinely constitutes a security threat.
I admit I was put a little off-balance when Sara walked into class on that first day. Would she speak? Or simply sit and stare at me? Would she expect special treatment? And how can I correct her pronunciation if I can't see her mouth?
My sense of being off-balance lasted . . . about seven minutes. Then normal life resumed. Over the course of the semester I noted only one actual effect that Sara's niqab had: at times I couldn't gauge her reactions. In some lighter moments it was quite obvious from her eyes she was smiling, while in others I thought my joke might've flopped with her but couldn't tell.
As a teacher I wasn't bothered by Sara's hidden face. As a bank teller, I might've been. Over the past several years in the U.S. there have been a handful of "burqa bandit" bank robberies--and now a handful of banks require the removal of any face coverings before entry. This seems entirely reasonable.
What doesn't seem reasonable is any across-the-board ban instituted with the niqab in mind simply because it's foreign to us. We already accept other familiar articles of clothing that equally obscure a person's identity. How many of us feel threatened by a bus passenger wearing a surgical mask to avoid the flu? By a football fan wearing a ski mask in a crowded stadium on a cold November night? Or a stranger on a winter street with a wool scarf wrapped across her face?
We don't feel threatened because they're not threats. Neither is Sara.
She is in another class of mine this semester. She's an industrious, intelligent student, and genuinely appreciative of her opportunity to study here. I'd hate to see other young Saudi women like her decide not to expand their horizons as she has done, and (incidentally) witness our freedoms first-hand, simply because we couldn't get used to seeing one particular scrap of clothing.
Sydenham is the author of the book, Silk Armor, published in April.