I Cannot Tell a Lie — Not in This Hijab!

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New research finds it’s easier to know if a woman is not telling the truth when she is wearing a traditional Muslim head covering.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

The question of whether cultural practices of the Islamic world are truly compatible with those of the West remains hotly debated, in spite of evidence that immigrants assimilate more rapidly than most people think. This issue has arisen, among other places, in the courts.

Judges in both Canada and the United Kingdom have grappled with the question of whether it is proper for a Muslim woman to testify wearing a hijab or niqab. While both courts arrived at compromises, they were clearly troubled by the notion that covering one’s face is incompatible with the Western tradition of being able to confront one’s accuser.

Well, if the practical question is whether such clothing makes it harder for jurors to determine if a witness is lying, there may be no problem after all. Newresearch reports people actually detect lies more accurately if the person telling them is wearing a traditional headscarf or veil.

In two studies, “lie detection was not hampered by veiling,” a research team led by Amy-May Leach of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology writes in the journal Law and Human Behavior. “In fact, observers were more accurate at detecting deception in witnesses who wore niqabs or hijabs than those who did not veil.”

The first study featured 232 Canadian university students. Those selected as “witnesses” (60 women) watched a video in which a woman either watched over a stranger’s bag, or stole something from it. All were then instructed to testify to her innocence. Thus half were lying, and half were telling the truth.

When a woman covers up, she — in a sense — exposes more.

During their testimony, the witnesses were randomly assigned to wear a black hijab (which covered their forehead and neck); a black niqab (which covered their entire face, except for their eyes); or no veil.

Study participants watched their testimony and afterwards rated their truthfulness. Their impressions were “more accurate when witnesses wore niqabs than when witnesses did not wear veils,” the researchers report.

The second study repeated this procedure with 291 university students from Canada, the Netherlands, and Great Britain. The results were similar: “Participants were more accurate at detecting the deception of witnesses who wore niqabs or hijabs than of witnesses who did not wear veils.”

When the witnesses’ faces were fully exposed, “Discrimination between lie- and truth-tellers was no better than guessing,” the researchers note. “It was only when witnesses wore veils that observers performed above chance levels.”

Why the lies of the veiled women were more transparent isn’t clear, but Leach and her colleagues suspect “the added emphasis on witnesses’ eyes” is a likely factor. “In our study, lie-tellers were more likely to avert their gaze than truth-tellers,” they write. “Veils should have highlighted this difference.”

In addition, with fewer visual distractions, study participants may have better picked up tell-tale verbal cues such as hesitation or stuttering. Either way, the researchers conclude, “veiling actually improved lie detection.”

Ironically, the results suggest that, when a woman covers up, she — in a sense — exposes more.