There's some fascinating discussion going on at some feminist blogs about the case of Aishah Azmi, a muslim woman in Britain who teaches at a London school while wearing the niqab. School officials have reportedly asked her to remove the face mask while teaching the children because some children have complained of not understanding her clearly. Azmi is a bilingual assistant teacher and many of these children are learning English as a second language.
Feminists seem to be divided on the issue of dress for muslim women generally, with some believing that coverings linked to the muslim faith are always misogynist and others believing that any mandate of women's dress that controls how much of bodies are covered or revealed is the problem, including a country or employer that requires female muslims to not wear a veil. The former claim cultural relativism of the latter and the latter claim insensitivity to the choices of nonwestern or nonwhite women of the former. Well, in a nutshell. There's been much volatile and bitter blogging around the same old issue of white feminists not including the concerns, cultures and realities of women of color in their politics lately as well.
I want to look at this specific case of Aishah Azmi and the discussion on some feminist blogs where disability has come up in more than one context.
At Feministe, where author Jill supports Azmi, commenter Sunrunner says:
I am sorry, but I am going to have to disagree with this. I would not want my child in a class that is taught by a teacher whose face cannot be seen. Think about it–how is a child supposed to feel? Have you ever had an extended conversation with someone wearing a niqab? It is much harder to pick up on social cues . . . is she happy or unhappy with what I am saying? This sort of visual feedback is extremely important to children.Jill responds:
Just out of curiosity, would you oppose your child being taught by someone with a facial deformity?Meanwhile, Gordon K notes:
...Access to facial expression and all of the facial cues that we call “lip reading” is extremely important in learning a language, particularly for students who are deaf, hard of hearing, or apraxic (and many of these students are mainstreamed). So is it appropriate to take a job teaching such a class if you are going to wear a veil?In a reference to the ADA, Sally says:
I’m wondering if it would be useful to apply the “reasonable accomodation” standard that’s used in the U.S. with regards to disabled people. If your religious practice seriously affects your fundamental ability to do your job, that’s a problem. If it merely makes people uncomfortable or requires some extra effort from your employer, then religious freedom trumps.Most commenters in this thread at Feministe believe discrimination of some kind (religion, gender) is at play regardless of their opinion on whether a teacher in Azmi's position should be fully veiled. This includes Leederick, who says:
Wearing a veil hampers her ability to do her job. It makes it particularly difficult for children who are hard of hearing. Her job’s teaching children, and I do think interaction and being able to see someone’s face is very important there.Meanwhile, Sunrunner responds to Jill:
Of course I would not object to my child being taught by a woman with a facial deformity! Anyway, I would assume that if a person is able to speak (necessary for teaching and caring for children) she has the capacity for some kind of facial expression. It is not at all the same thing as a blank, black mask.In fact, this assumption is not correct. While I have some "capacity" for facial expression, many of my facial muscles were the first affected by my neuromuscular disease and the dimple I had in my left cheek hasn't been seen for about 30 years. If you run into it, let me know. But anyone who knows me personally (except those who have known me exclusively in the past year) can tell you that some people with very limited capacity for facial expressions rarely let other people get a word in edgewise. Even just communicating on paper lately, I rarely shut up. Anyway, while facial muscles do effect pronunication and clarity, inability to use most of them has no impact on the amount of speech a person can produce.
Interestingly though, I have been accused of having a blank mask of a face by someone angry with me in a conversation we were holding. "Icy demeanor" was part of the accusation and it was used to undermine my point-of-view (which was unrelated to disability). My language was understood perfectly. The emotional content of my argument was, perhaps, not understood. So, no facial deformity here, just a "blank... mask."
Discussion at Creative Destruction includes a debate about whether or not seeing a teacher's mouth is necessary for learning a language. It's noted that blind people manage to acquire speech without sight. And there's the comment that blind people have special powers in their use of their other senses, but children should be afforded every sense possible to learn. Much like the ironic invisibility of deaf muslim children or devout muslim women who use sign language -- which I presume exist and manage to communicate somewhere in this wide world -- blind children don't come up in this discussion.
Robert, whom I believe to be the "Bob Hayes" author of the CR post, says:
So as long as a teacher is only handicapping some of her students’ ability to have a successful life, it’s OK?Language is fascinating throughout this multi-blog discussion. When I find time, I'll post about a muslim woman's ironic use of language and imagery in defense of wearing the niqab in Britain's The Sunday Times.
But Robert's comment brings us to PunkAssBlog. Post author R. Mildred writes:
If a class of 6 - 12 year olds needs to see the teachers lips to understand her ... then I assume she has the training to deal with a special ed class and when she say “the kids can understand me fine” (as she has done) we can pretty much take her word on it - and if she’s teaching deaf kids she should need to be able to sign anyway and that she wears a niqab is an incidental side note that isn’t really relevent.I don't plan to step into the deaf politics minefield that is oralism versus sign language here, but I do want to note that not all deaf children are taught with sign language. On the other hand, R. Mildred does take it for granted that being muslim and deaf aren't mutually exclusive -- or more specifically, being a niqab-wearing woman and being familiar with deafness and sign language -- and I appreciate that.
If you aren't fascinated already, here's where I think the discussion gets riveting. Sunrunner, commenting here as well, links to a Guardian article by a non-veil-wearing muslim woman journalist who dons the niqab for 24 hours and, as expected, finds it completely oppressive.
Then, R. Mildred basically claims that a teacher wearing a niqab could provide children with a superior education to those who learn language while relying on the ability to see their teacher's full face:
The niqab doesn’t even hide as much facial information as people assume, it just takes a bit of familiarity to get used to reading the eyes without the landmarks.
hell, if a child learns to communicate from a woman wearing a niqab, she’s had a masterclass in reading people’s faces, give them a full face and they’ll be able to read people’s minds.
Lack is described as an asset. Sounds just a little like some disability rights arguments that impairments or inabilities have their own inherent values.
When I studied status in theatre class (by which I mean, the unconcious perceived status that two people feel when relating to each other– not talking about social class here– a king can play low status to a chimney sweep), I learned through experience that anything which makes it harder to read your expression enhances your perceived status in other people’s eyes. So, for instance, sunglasses naturally increase your status because people cannot see your eyes moving; they even may get the sensation that you are calmly staring straight into their eyes at all times, even if you’re really just looking everywhere at once nervously.... Anyway, I imagine a veil would probably act in a similar fashion."Anything?" I disagree with this statement for more than one reason, but from a perspective of my experience as it relates to not just disability but perceived difference (before I was visibly impaired in any other way) I find it to be untrue. Status comes from elsewhere than this.
Responding to Sunrunner's link of the "veil-for-a day" Guardian article, Sly Civilian says:
Gah! I’ve got really serious objections to using that narrative as an anti-veiling argument. Ask anyone in disabilities activism if it’s a good idea to put somebody in a wheelchair “for a day” to show them what it’s really like.
Temporary “adoption” of a social, physical, cultural, whatever barrier is NOT the same thing as durable inhabitance of an idenity constructed in response to that fact. The tourist has none of the knowlege, experience, support, training, or coping stratagies, and experiences “disability” in a completely artificial and unrealistic fashion. By selective appropriation or by revulsion, the tourist response almost always lacks grounding or respect.
While the author wrote of her concern of exploring her Muslim idenity in this way, I’m worried that consumption of this article as anti-veil is to miss what this experience is and isn’t. For one thing, it is NOT an accurate representation of what daily life is like for a woman wearing the niqab. Definitionally, a tourist (even one from a nearby country) is not the same as a native.
To that very last, I'll note that it's also not the same as wearing a niqab because you wish to. This slides away from the topic of Azmi and her students, but it is true that the current wisdom among disability activists is that crip-for-a-day programs might do more harm than good. Yet I believe Sunrunner misunderstands Sly Civilian's point because in response there is this:
Oh, so you are comparing veiling to being disabled?
A disability is NOT a choice, a veil is (sometimes). One chooses to wear it for a day or a month or a year or a lifetime, but one does not choose to be disabled. One simply is or is not.
Along with eventually saying she(?) agrees about disability simulations, Sunrunner adds:
Anyway, my point was that it is ludicrous to compare a woman who choose to wear a veil in a country in which it is not mandated with another woman who is confined to a motorized wheelchair due to a life threatening disabling illness. So if my anger is stupid, it is no more stupid than your stupid analogy.Despite what Sunrunner declares, I find the comparison is being made all over the place. Azmi is declared disabled by the veil, her niqab is compared to facial deformity, her ability to communicate is debated with regard to sight, hearing and other physical ability. The ADA and "reasonable accommodation" are invoked. Words like "handicapping" are used. Some commenters address Azmi's abilities, some address the childrens' possible disabilities. Commenters relate their own various disabling learning experiences.These Western feminist debates struggle to balance the religious and cultural freedom of muslim women with freedom from misogynist limits religion and culture make on muslim women's lives. Race is also a factor. And it's clear disability is too, though the thoughts of disabled muslim women (feminists?) are not present here. The niqab-wearing disabled women know these issues intimately and undoubtedly struggles to find balance as well. I know they're out there. But silent in -- or silenced from -- this particular online debate.
There was an anonymous non-signing deaf commenter on PunkAssBlog:
As long as disability has been introduced here, any deaf children in the classroom would be required to ask her to remove her veil if they wanted to understand her, or be removed to another classroom if she refused. And before any of you pile on me, *I* was that non signing deaf child in the class who constantly had to teach her teachers not to face the blackboard, to look at us, etc. To this day I still have to educate my teachers (I continue taking classes in all kinds of things.) Access to the visual expression on someone’s face is critically important for me and other non signing deaf. It is not a choice. It is not “some whitey” making glib objections. It’s a fight against ableism or disablism (pick your country).I don't know if "anonymous" was truly heard. Neither R. Mildred or Jill, the original posters at PunkAss and Feministe, respectively, have appeared to consider the intersection of disability, though it's part of the discussion everywhere.