Carleton professor's lesson veiled in delivery
Last Updated: Saturday, October 20, 2007 | 12:36 PM ET
Students at Carleton University in Ottawa were given the chance to learn a lesson in culture and cultural assumptions this semester when their non-Muslim sociology professor hid her face by wearing a veil.
For the first three weeks of class, Sian Reid wore the black traditional Muslim veil called a niqab, covering all of her face except for the eyes.
Sian Reid, 41, said she wanted to make her students aware of the assumptions they make about the world.
Reid read a posting on a university online discussion board from a student who said when they first saw her they thought she must be a teaching assistant getting ready for the "real professor."
"And it wasn't until I stepped behind the podium myself and started to talk, that they realized I was the real professor," she told CBC Newsworld in an interview Saturday.
In week four, she removed the veil and long robe, called an abaya, allowing students to see at the front of the room a red-headed woman in clothes from her regular wardrobe.
"Nobody came and approached me and until the fourth week when I did take the niqab off … and even then, it wasn't raised in front of the whole class," Reid said. "A small group of students stayed behind to talk to me about why my dress had changed so dramatically.
"The conversations started out by pointing out that when we look at things in North American culture, we look at them and we interpret them at the same time — and in sociology you can't do that.
"What people thought they saw was an orthodox Muslim female professor. What they actually saw was a female professor wearing a niqab.They had made an interpretation kind of automatically — and in sociology you can't afford to do that. Observations and interpretations have to be two different things."
Reid said she decided over the summer to use her dress as a teaching technique to get the students' attention on the first day of class "in really large classes — and mine are 300 to 450 students," and to give them a chance to use other ways of trying to get information about her, such as body language and tone of voice — "things we don't rely on quite as much."
The teaching technique later became a way for students to think about culture and ethnocentrism.
She said there was some discussion as to whether it was appropriate for a non-Muslim woman to have dressed the way she did.
"And my point to my students is that, well, if a woman from Saudi Arabia comes to my sociology class and she wants to wear jeans and a turtleneck, nobody says to her, well, you're not qualified to wear those clothes."
Reid said they also talked about whether someone can be judged to be not ethnically and religiously qualified to wear clothing more common in another part of the world.
"And it invites my students to think about how they perceive aspects of other cultures. It's OK to eat Thai food, [but] is it OK to dress in Thai clothes?"
The professor said she was "really shocked" at the level of rudeness she encountered when she was away from university and running errands while travelling to and from work while wearing the niqab."At the university I didn't notice anything in particular, but certainly out in the general public I did," she said.