The wearing of face veils (the niqab) by Muslim women has become a politically sensitive issue in recent years. The practice is banned in France and similar laws are planned, or already in place, in many other Western European countries including Belgium, The Netherlands and Austria. In the UK, in 2006 the then Government Minister Jack Straw caused controversy when he suggested that wearing the niqab interferes with face-to-face communication and he’d prefer it if the practice were dropped. Now for the first time psychologists have tested the effects of the niqab on the facial communication of emotion.
A team led by Agneta Fischer at the University of Amsterdam showed four short videos to 58 Dutch students (23 had previously had contact with a niqab-wearer; 25 had Muslims among their family and friends). The silent videos showed a woman (one of three actresses) telling a story that was either emotionally neutral, happy, made her angry or made her feel shame. Crucially, some of the participants viewed videos in which the woman was wearing a niqab; others viewed a woman with horizontal black bars on the screen concealing the top of her head and her lower face; and others viewed a version in which the woman’s head and face were uncovered (see picture). The participants’ task was to rate the intensity of emotions expressed by the woman in each clip.
The niqab seemed to change the facial communication of emotion. Participants who viewed the woman wearing a niqab rated her expression of happiness as less intense than participants who viewed the other two videos. Moreover, participants who viewed videos of a woman with her face covered (be that with the niqab or the horizontal bars) rated her expression of shame as more intense, compared with participants who viewed a woman with an uncovered face. The perception of anger in the videos was unaffected by face covering, probably because anger is expressed principally via furrowing of the brow, which was visible regardless of face covering.
After viewing the video clips, the participants were asked about their attitudes toward the niqab. Those who’d seen clips showing a woman with a covered face (the niqab or the horizontal bars) expressed more negative attitudes toward the niqab, and this was mediated by the amount of negative emotion they perceived in the video clips. In other words, the researchers said, “we may conclude that the attempt to decode emotions in covered faces leads one to perceive more negative emotions, which in turn influences how one feels about covering one’s face.”
There is a weakness in the study methodology. The clips featuring the horizontal bars were created by using software to overlay the bars on the footage of the women filmed without their heads covered. The niqab videos, by contrast, were filmed separately with the women actually wearing the niqabs, so it’s possible the actresses may have behaved differently whilst wearing the veils. However, this doesn’t diminish the main point that both forms of face covering affected the communication of emotion.
Fischer and her colleagues concluded that the niqab may have the effect of exaggerating the perceived amount of negative emotion expressed by a wearer, whilst diminishing the perceived amount of positive emotion. “The present research thus supports some of the concerns that have been expressed in political debates concerning the negative effects of wearing niqabs in social settings,” they said.
Fischer, A., Gillebaart, M., Rotteveel, M., Becker, D., and Vliek, M. (2012). Veiled Emotions: The Effect of Covered Faces on Emotion Perception and Attitudes. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3 (3), 266-273 DOI: 10.1177/1948550611418534