Smile at me, dammit!

Um…wait….Libby Purves at a meeting to discuss The Veil.

It was good to have the student speaking of “ghosts”, and good to have women who had worn the niqab saying it made them feel not only more devout but more private, especially in times of divorce or bereavement. I admitted a moment of discomfort myself: on the way in, crossing the Mile End Road and finding myself face to face with a full black veil, as we jinked from side to side to avoid collision, I gave the usual smilingly embarrassed grimace, yet her invisibility denied me any answering smile. When I said this, a cheerful bearded man in the audience whose wife wears one said: “You should have greeted her. She can speak, you know!’ We agreed that next time I meet a niqab-wearer in the street I will say “Good morning!” and expect a response.

Wait. If the niqab makes women feel more private, especially in times of divorce or bereavement, i.e. when they’re sad and upset and fragile and need to be outside but don’t want to interact with strangers, then why did we agree that niqab-wearers in the street should as a matter of policy be accosted? And as a matter of fact, even without the privacy-sadness-fragility-leave me alone aspect, why did we agree that niqab-wearers in the street should as a matter of policy be accosted? What if they don’t want to be accosted? Why should the niqab be interpreted as a near-requirement to say ‘Good morning’? Is this over-compensation? Over-correction? Reverse psychology? Perversity? What’s the thinking here? ‘I see – you’re wearing something that covers your face, therefore you are inviting me to greet you, and will feel insulted and offended and aggrieved if I don’t. [anxiously] Good morning!!’

Why is the cheerful bearded man in the audience (of course he’s cheerful, he gets to wear his face) whose wife wears one scolding Purves for not greeting a woman whose face is wrapped in a cloth? Why is it Purves’s duty to greet her? Why do people want to have everything both ways, or all ways? Why do people want to put on clothes that they know perfectly well elicit certain reactions, and at the same time rebuke the expected reactions? Why do people want to pretend on the one hand that the niqab is ‘just a piece of cloth,’ nothing more than that, no more peculiar or thrilling than a handkerchief, despite different location; no meaning, no implications, no resonance, certainly no political or religious agenda, just a small square of cloth that could be a doll’s tablecloth in another context; and on the other hand that there are all sorts of rules and ethical imperatives about how everyone is to react to the piece of cloth and the woman wearing it? If I go out in jeans and a sweater, no one is under any obligation to greet me and say ‘Good morning!’ because I am wearing them; so if the niqab is so ordinary and ho hum and average, why are we commanded to greet people who wear them? And then, if a woman puts on a face-shield whose primary effect is surely to make it difficult to greet her, why are we expected to greet her? If I go out with a horse’s second-best blanket over my head, is that a mandate for people to greet me? Is it not rather an invitation not to greet me and also a pretty effective preventive device? If you want people to greet you, you should make it easier, not harder. The way to get people greet you is not to go prancing around with your face in a sheet so that no one can tell if you are smiling or sneering or making bubble-lips. We don’t want to greet people who we can’t tell if they’re laughing at us! If it’s greetings you want, leave the Groucho nose and the mask at home; otherwise, put up with non-greetings. You can’t have everything. Get used to it.

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