Brandon Robshaw on the burqa

A visiting extra-terrestrial would find it noteworthy that in public, in all societies, humans are allowed to cover their bodies, limbs and hands and feet, and obliged to cover their genitals, but that the covering of the face is rare, and problematic. The extra-terrestrial would observe that the face is nearly always on show in public, except for temporary coverings required for protection in certain situations (welders' masks, motorcycle-helmets, surgeons' masks, etc.), and that individuals who cover their faces outside of such situations tend to be viewed with suspicion: bandits, assassins, bank-robbers and others of sinister intent often cover their faces, and in the films, plays and books that humans create such sinister characters are frequently depicted in this way. The extra-terrestrial would observe that photographs of faces (not other body parts) are routinely used for many forms of identification – passports, driving licences, staff passes and so on. The extra-terrestrial would also observe that the face occupies a prominent position in the arts across millennia and across a wide range of cultures: from ancient Egyptian sculptures and paintings to Greek and Roman busts and statues, tribal masks from all over Africa and South America, heads cast in brass and bronze from the Kingdom of Benin, representations of the face in Japanese art and in the European genre of portraiture, representations in literature where, especially in the novel form, detailed descriptions of faces are frequent, and celebrations of the face in song. ("I've Just Seen a Face", "Baby Face", "You’re Beautiful", "The First Time Ever I Saw your Face", etc.) In films and television programmes close-ups linger on faces, and the faces of famous stars are instantly, globally recognisable. In advertisements, joyful or amazed faces are used to advertise all manner of products. In the houses of Earth-people, photographs of family members' faces are often on display, and many carry photos of loved ones' faces around in their wallets or on their phones. Would-be daters post pictures of their faces on dating websites.

The extra-terrestrial would note that no other part of the body is so frequently on display, and would conclude that the face must be of special significance to human beings: that covering it up is different in important ways from covering other parts of the body. And the extra-terrestrial would be right.

The face occupies a special, transcultural importance in human society in a number of key ways. Emmanuel Levinas states, in Totality and Infinity, that ethics begins with the face-to-face encounter: "the onset of the other, as the expression of the face... opens a 'me' to goodness". The face is also far more significant for human beings than for other species. Other animals focus on the face to a much lesser extent or not at all. A peahen is more interested in looking at the tail than the face of a peacock. Dogs are more interested in scent than in visual appearance of any kind. It is only among the primates that the face is important, and among primates none have such expressive, mobile, distinctive faces as humans, or rely on them so heavily for communication.

There is a whole region of the brain devoted to face recognition, the fusiform face area. It is so good at its job that it often causes us to see faces in places where they are not: clouds, tree bark, pizzas, etc. This in itself tells us that there must be something important to us about other people's faces: so complex and costly a mechanism would not evolve without a pay-off, although it is still unclear exactly when this mechanism evolved or what specific selection pressures led to its evolution.


There are at least two reasons why the face is so important. One is that it is the swiftest and most reliable means of identifying a person. Except for the faces of identical twins, each human face is unique. Identifying other individuals is vital for a species as social and as complex as homo sapiens. A glance at another's face is enough to fix them in your social world: are they family? Friends? Enemies? Strangers? Before a word has been spoken you know your relationship with them, what duties you owe them or they owe you, and what kind of treatment you can expect from them or they from you.

Second, faces express emotions. Darwin theorised in The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals that the most basic human expressions are universal, and many subsequent studies have supported this. It is true that some have disputed Darwin's theory; the psychologist Lisa Feldman-Barrett has argued that facial expressions are not universal but depend for their meaning on contextual clues and thus are culturally dependent. Even if Feldman-Barrett's objection holds up, however – and it is disputed by Ekman and others – it would remain true that facial expressions convey emotions in given cultural contexts.

A glance at another's face tells you not merely who they are and what their relationship is to you, but also tells you what mood they are in and what you can expect from them, or what is expected from you. For social animals like ourselves, recognising the emotions of others (and being able to express our own emotions knowing they will be understood) is vital. Seeing that someone is angry gives us a cue as to how to respond; we might get ready to defend ourselves, or hasten to mollify them. Seeing that someone is sad or in pain might make us want to alleviate their suffering; being able to convey our own sadness or pain might call forth much-needed help for ourselves. It has been found that facial expressions are the most effective triggers to empathy – far more effective than speech. Facial mirroring – imitating the expression of the face of the person before you – is often used unconsciously to convey empathy, triggered by mirror neurons in the brain.

The face, then, clearly signals to us that other people have emotions, needs, interests. I should like to stipulate that ethics necessarily involves paying due attention to the emotions, needs and interests of others. If this is granted, then Levinas is at least partially right when he says that ethics begins when we look into another's face. Contemplation of another's face can tell us what they are thinking and feeling, and this can be a trigger for ethical impulses. It is for this reason that charitable organisations use photographs of the faces of starving, sick or otherwise suffering individuals, especially children, in their appeals for donations.

The face is not the only trigger to ethical impulses. The voice is another. But the voice is not normally an alternative to the face as a signifier. They normally work in concert. And if there is a discrepancy between them – if the voice utters cheerful words while the face looks in pain – it is generally the face we trust.

Moreover, the face is a constant signifier, always there to be looked at, not turned on and off like the voice. Thus the face can reveal not just static emotions but a continuous play of them. In social intercourse with another person we are able to monitor their facial expressions, whether consciously, semi-consciously or unconsciously, and can update and modify our own speech, behaviour and facial expressions accordingly. This facility makes it possible for face-to-face ethical behaviour to be fine-tuned as one goes along. (Of course the face is helpful in this way not just for good ethical impulses but for bad ones, too, from teasing to torture.)

Faces communicate not only emotions but also age, health and well-being. It is often possible to tell from a glance at someone's face that they are tired or unwell. This, too, acts as a trigger for ethical impulses.

But the face's role in ethics is not merely that of a trigger. It is worth noting that humans have extraordinarily good memories for faces. We easily conjure up faces in the imagination or in dreams. Nor do most people have difficulty recognising a face they have seen before, even if only fleetingly, though recalling the name that goes with it tends to be harder. The face's role in ethics is thus not confined to face-to-face encounters. The recollection of someone's face helps to mark them out as an individual, a subject and the object of ethical impulses.

I do not claim that we can only behave ethically towards people whose faces we have seen. But it is plausible to suggest that our life's experience of having recognised and responded to thoughts and feelings expressed in others' faces gives us the understanding, empathy and motivation to treat unseen others as deserving recipients of ethical consideration. We attribute faces to them, one might say. It seems far less plausible that a lifetime's experience of having recognised and responded to thoughts and feelings expressed in others' faces has nothing at all to do with our ethical consideration of unseen others.

For these reasons, covering one's face in public on a habitual basis is very different indeed from covering one's feet, hair, or any other body part.


Two thought experiments below aim to explore how the liberal state should react to voluntary face-covering by citizens. I have stripped the scenarios of all cultural or religious context, to identify what the liberal response should be to the practice per se.

The lone face-coverer

Suppose that there were no such thing as the burqa; no religious or cultural custom of women covering their faces in public. Now suppose that an individual person (their sex is immaterial) decided to wear, habitually, a garment that completely covered their face. Their reasons for doing so do not matter. Perhaps as suggested above they do not like being stared at or judged on their looks; perhaps they are morbidly sensitive about their appearance; perhaps they wish to cultivate a sense of mystique. But in this thought-experiment there is no culture or tradition within which such a practice is normal. It is simply the personal preference of an individual (we will refer to them as the Lone Face-Coverer). How should a liberal state respond?

There does not seem to be any prima facie reason why a liberal state should respond at all. Liberals generally oppose restricting the liberty of individuals unless their actions are demonstrably harmful to others. It is not clear how the Lone Face-Coverer is harming anybody else by concealing their face. They might make others feel puzzled, frustrated or uncomfortable but such transient feelings can hardly be characterised as harm. Perhaps some people might object that not being able to see the face-coverers' face caused offence. However, the offence in this case seems neither severe, persistent or inescapable enough to justify a ban.

More seriously, the Lone Face-Coverer would disadvantage themselves. They would be cut off from a great many normal social interactions, unable to communicate through facial expressions and therefore more likely to be overlooked and ignored. Certainly, if one was forced to cover one's face at all times in public that would be a serious harm. But this is not the case with the Lone Face-Coverer, who has chosen voluntarily to cover up. Liberals are suspicious of paternalist policies, and this would not seem to be a case for it. Banning someone from covering their face, which would affect how they appear in public all the time, is a large restriction of liberty. Their behaviour would certainly disadvantage them, but it is not life-threatening or health-destroying, and it is not irrevocable. The Lone Face-Coverer could uncover whenever they liked. The liberal state therefore would not have any reason, either from the Harm Principle, the Offence Principle or from paternalism, to prevent the Lone Face-Coverer from covering their face.

Habitual public face-covering could, however, cause inconvenience to others on certain occasions. There might be situations where, for reasons of security, identification or communication, the Lone Face-Coverer would be requested to temporarily uncover. Banks, for example, have rules requiring customers to remove motorcycle-helmets as a precaution against robbery. If the Lone Face-Coverer was requested to unmask and refused to do so, the liberal state could support the right of the bank to see its customers' faces in the interests of security, against the right of the customer to stay masked. Requiring unmasking in such a case is not treating the Lone Face-Coverer unfairly. They would be following the same rule as everybody else. Moreover, the rule is clearly there for a sensible reason. The Lone Face-Coverer has no reason of their own, other than a personal preference, to demand an exemption. And personal preference is not a good enough reason for exemption from a rule. If it were, then the very idea of having rules would be imperilled.

Matters would be different if the Lone Face-Coverer could offer a substantive reason for exemption, based on some relevant fact about their personal circumstances. If the Lone Face-Coverer had severe scarring or a facial disfigurement which they were too self-conscious to expose in public, that could justify special treatment, and some other means of identification could be used. There would be a reasonable case for exemption based on Unequal Impact; the rule about uncovering would impact more harshly on this person than on others, for a reason over which they had no control. Even then it is by no means clear that the bank would be obliged to grant an exemption. Other factors would need to be weighed. Allowing the Lone Face-Coverer to frequent the bank with their face covered could open the way to others imitating the Lone Face-Coverer, and entering the bank unchallenged with the intent to rob it.

Parallel considerations apply for other institutions where security, identity or communication are important, such as law courts, airports, hospitals, schools and so on. The liberal state, therefore, would support the right of institutions to require temporary unmasking (absent legitimate claims for exemption, which would have to be weighed on a case-by-case basis). Apart from that, the liberal state has no reason to concern itself if an individual citizen wishes to cover their face while going about their daily business. The existence of the Lone Face-Coverer would provide no liberal justification for a general ban on public face-covering.

The face-coverers

Let us now imagine that the example of the Lone Face-Coverer catches on. Soon there are hundreds or thousands, or tens of thousands, of Face-Coverers. Let us assume there is still no religious motive for covering up. The Face-Coverers do it from personal preference. Perhaps it is a fashion statement. They include men and women in equal numbers. Is there any call now for the liberal state to intervene?

The Face-Coverers would face all the same problems as the Lone Face-Coverers, with two additional ones. First, the Face-Coverers would experience difficulty in recognising one another and in gauging each others' emotional states. Thus communication, and hence some forms of ethical behaviour, among the Face-Coverers themselves would be hampered. Second, the Face-Coverers would be likely to encounter greater suspicion and mistrust from the unmasked portion of the population than the Lone Face-Coverer did.

This brings us to the effect on others. The same problems arise for others as they did for the Lone Face-Coverer, but they would be multiplied by the number of people covering up. Concerns about security would be greater. Nor would those concerns be irrational; for the greater the number of people who were masked, the greater the likelihood that one or some of them could have nefarious intent. Moreover the existence of the Face-Coverers would make it possible for opportunists to imitate the Face-Coverers in order to commit crimes.

How should the liberal state respond? First, we can continue to rule out a ban on paternalist grounds. The disadvantages of face-covering are still not so great as to justify the major restriction on liberty of forcing someone to uncover. As before, such disadvantages are neither permanent nor irrevocable. If any of the Face-Coverers find their regime too personally disadvantageous, then they can always make the decision themselves to give it up.

But could a ban be justified on grounds of preventing harm to others? Not on the grounds of feelings of annoyance, mistrust or insecurity that unmasked people might have. Negative feelings do not qualify as harms. But suppose the existence of the Face-Coverers led to an increase in serious crimes. Then a ban might be justified. It would depend on how events played out. If it turned out to be the case that the existence of the Face-Coverers led to a marked increase in robberies, assaults, rapes and murders by masked criminals (whether by the regular Face-Coverers themselves or by impostors), and if that increase could be definitely linked to the practice of face-covering, then there would be solid grounds for a ban. This would be hard on the law-abiding portion of the Face-Coverers. Their contribution to the crime-rise would be unwitting. Nevertheless a ban would be justified, as preventing much greater harms than not being able to satisfy the preference to cover one's face in public.

Whether there would actually be any such crime-rise is an empirical question. In the absence of a crime-rise a liberal state would seem to have no grounds for a ban. As before, though, the liberal state should still support the right of institutions to require temporary uncovering of the face for reasons of security, identification or communication.

To sum up: a liberal state should support the right of individuals to cover their face in public from personal preference; with two provisos.

One, that, in cases where institutions asked for temporary unmasking, for reasons of identification, security or communication, the liberal state should support the right of those institutions to require it (absent any sound reason for exemption, with personal preference not counting as a sound reason).

Two, if it should turn out to be the case that face-covering became widespread enough to facilitate a rise in anonymous actions which caused serious harms, then a liberal state would be justified in banning it. But the justification for the ban would be to remove the harms, not based on any objection in principle to face-covering.

None of this is to suggest that liberals would or should like or approve of habitual voluntary face-covering. They are free to dislike and disapprove of it and to say so. But they must tolerate it (with the provisos above) because that is what being a liberal entails. This position, arrived at without any consideration of religious or cultural issues, turns out to be the same in essentials as that argued for by Russell Blackford in the case of burqa-wearing, in Freedom, Religion and the Secular State (2012).

This is an extract from Should a Liberal State Ban the Burqa? by Brandon Robshaw, published by Bloomsbury.

Dr Brandon Robshaw lectures for the Open University in Philosophy, Creative Writing and Children’s Literature. He has written several children’s books including a philosophical YA novel, The Infinite Powers of Adam Gowers. He and his family starred in BBC2’s Back in Time for Dinner. You can find his website here.