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Veiling obstructs body language
Date: Thursday, 4 February 2010, 2:23 pm

Talking face to face
By Claire Heald
BBC News Magazine

Muslim teaching assistant Aishah Azmi
Do we need more than the eyes?
Debate over Muslim women wearing the full-face veil has been raging. So is it important for communication to see more than someone's eyes?

The eyes are the window to the soul, so the proverb goes. But do we need to see more?

Jack Straw's comments about asking Muslim women in his surgery to remove the face veil - and the tribunal case over a Muslim classroom assistant wearing the niqab - have sparked much debate.

But does it really obstruct communication if we can only see the eyes? In one-on-one contact, in the same physical place, the eyes are the focus. So does it matter if that's all that can be seen?

'Eyebrow flash'

Absolutely, say body language experts. Seeing only the eyes cuts 80% of the detail that comes to us unspoken, says psychologist Dr David Lewis.

Messages come thick and fast from other body parts - around the eyes, the rest of the face and the whole body.

"The eyes will tell you quite a lot, but it's like trying to guess what's in a book by reading the first chapter. The whole face is the major area of non-verbal communication."

They don't feel they need to see my face to hear my voice
Nadia Ajibade

Why women wear the veil

Eyebrows alone contain key signals when people meet - in every culture, communication begins with a split-second "mutual eyebrow flash" - raising them to acknowledge each other.

They can be used to ask a question or give a rebuke, adds psychologist Dr Andrina McCormack.

Under the eyes, small pockets of flesh pop up when someone smiles, but only if the smile is genuine. Miss them, and can you judge?

Across the rest of the face, whether the muscles are relaxed or tense indicates mood.

The mouth is seen as vital. For instance, when pre-school children engage in rough and tumble play, they use a different face to show that it is friendly - teeth bared, mouth open, but muscles relaxed. If the face becomes tense it signals time to take cover.

Bite warning

This translates to adulthood - the smile is a way of rolling back the lips in a non-threatening way. As the human mouth is loaded with germs it is important to know if someone is going to bite.

Tony Blair and Gordon Brown
Watch the whole body, say psychologists

People use the whole body to read people's mood - through gesture, posture, whether they are holding on to themselves, clutching their arms or relaxed. It is often absorbed on a sub-conscious level.

But do these subtle signals really matter? Some Muslim women who wear the niqab say not.

"Within my [mixed] community, I interact just as well as anyone else does and get on with my neighbours," Nadia Ajibade, 23, told the BBC. "They're not shallow, they don't see the face veil as a barrier. They don't feel they need to see my face to hear my voice."

Others say perhaps it is a separation too far. Teacher Maryam Khan, says: "Working with young children, so much is read just from facial expressions, you don't have to speak to a child.

"If they can't see your face, they don't know what you're thinking - a glare, a smile."

David Cameron at a school
Non-verbal communication is key for the young

Psychologists agree. "It's particularly true for children under five because their communication is non-verbal, they're much better at reading it than adults," says Dr Lewis. "If they're denied these signals they become quite confused."

In a culture where wearing veils is less common, covering the face can have other historic connotations. In the UK, there have been negative associations with a concealed face - the highwayman, executioner, burglar or today's hoodies.

When non-verbal information in a face is hidden, it can provoke anxiety and nervousness, says Dr Lewis - prompting "angry or more negative" responses.

Messages In This Thread

Veiling obstructs body language
BBC -- Thursday, 4 February 2010, 2:23 pm
Why Muslim women wear the veil
BBC -- Thursday, 4 February 2010, 2:26 pm
Re: Why Muslim women wear the veil
Jawaid Ahmed -- Thursday, 4 February 2010, 2:38 pm
Why Muslim men must wear the veil - edited
Dr Shabbir -- Thursday, 4 February 2010, 2:51 pm
Re: Why Muslim women wear the veil
Mubashir -- Friday, 5 February 2010, 2:44 am