Of all the images that have come to symbolize the post-9/11 clash of cultures, one remains particularly provocative: That of an Islamic woman covering her face with a veil. France has gone so far as to outlaw the practice in public, asserting it is incompatible with society’s ideals of secularism and gender equality.
Is this an example of cultural prejudice? Not entirely, according to newly published research that suggests Westerners' discomfort with the veil reflects deeper psychological impulses.
“The attempt to decode emotions in covered faces leads one to perceive more negative emotions,” reports a research team led by the University of Amsterdam’s Agneta Fischer. “Observers may be biased toward seeing more negative emotions when they are guessing about what’s going on beneath the veil.”
The observers in this case were Europeans — specifically, Dutch students. Importantly, their responses suggest this bias occurs even if facial features are obscured for reasons unrelated to religion.
Writing in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, Fischer and her colleagues describe two experiments. The key one featured 58 University of Amsterdam undergraduates, who were told they would participate in a study of “how emotion is conveyed in film.”
The students watched three short videos in succession, during which the same woman tells three highly emotional stories — one angry, one happy and one shameful. After each story, the participants rated the level of intensity with which she conveyed a series of emotions. In all cases, the sound was turned off, so the participants’ judgments were based on visual information alone.
For one-third of the participants, the woman’s face was fully visible in all three videos. For another third, she wore a niqab, a traditional Islamic veil that covers the nose and mouth region but not the eyes. For the final third, the lower part of the woman’s face was digitally covered.
The results: “Women whose faces are covered and who display anger, shame and happiness are perceived as more expressive of negative and less of positive emotions, compared to observers of women whose faces are fully visible,” researchers write.
Specifically, “happiness was perceived as less intense in covered faces,” presumably because one could not see the woman’s smile. In addition, “shame was perceived as more intense in the covered-face conditions,” the researchers write. “The face covering in itself, and not the niqab, may be an implicit cue for shame.”
“There was no difference in the perception of emotions conveyed in the anger stories across face conditions, probably due to the fact that anger is relatively easy to detect because of the prototypical furrowing of the brow, which was clearly visible in all face conditions,” they add.
The researchers found few differences in discerned emotions between the women whose faces were partially covered by the niqab and those whose faces were partially obscured by a digital effect. They conclude that the perception of more intense negative emotions in veiled women is better explained by “a lack of perceptual cues” than by anti-Islamic prejudice.
So, a style of dress that signifies modesty in one culture sends a very different message to members of a different culture, who associate the lack of a visible facial expression with lower levels of happiness and higher levels of shame.
No wonder veiled women are often viewed as oppressed. Perhaps they see themselves that way. Then again, perhaps we’re reading too much into their partially-exposed faces.