Learning to act right (37)… A burqa near enoughTorrey Orton
November 23, 2013
I got to learn something the other day at a psych conference in Sydney. As usual, the important learnings often do not come by choice…or, rather, the choice is about whether to learn or not once fate has cast me into teachable moments. This one arose from my habitual preference for the last seats in the room of trainings and presentations. It keeps me out of the frontline of unsolicited audience participation tactics and allows a modest escape if the event is failing enough of my needs!
A woman arrived late and sat three chairs over from me with nothing but a slit for vision. She was even wearing thin dark leather gloves amplifying the fact and prominence of her hands (writing session notes with her gloves on, but shoes off stockinged feet). My whole self tensed with apprehension. I had previewed such a scene in the past as I worked through the challenge of full body veiling to my sense of normal social practice, testing my flexibility for tolerance of a practice which seemed then, and still now, to be inhumane. Travel has often exposed me to variations of the burqa, always at the distance which travel provides even if we are confronted by lack of space and packed aisles.
She was separated from me, and I from her, by another woman who had come along before the session started. The burqa’d voice started me on the path to release from the dogma of my cultural incompetence. It was a real Oz accented, somewhat rough, loud presence (…maybe a smoker’s) asking about fine points of psych research’s implications for families. Slowly my anxiety declined, joints unleashed, breathing lengthened, attention to the event focussed again. Maybe a half hour or so to return to normal, with only that slight fizz of guardedness which attends most of my public behaviour still in play.
Somewhere between that session and the next we resat in a similar configuration but shorter rows and my anxiety continued to abate. So, anxiety about what? Anxiety about not being able to see the whole face of anyone I might talk to. Since then I’ve remembered that men in sunglasses at night present the same opportunity for discomfort. And since then, I’ve remembered that actually I’m a specialist in voice in my work. I can catch a slight movement in tone, pace, rhythm, volume…the kinds which signal movements of evaluation, of appraisal, of all the emotions through which we engage the world. The kinds which give a sense of the being of the person at the moment rather than the mediated being of visual cues like manner of dress.
And so it was with the burqua’d woman. I recognised her voiced expressions of culture, health and interest, among others. I could have addressed them in the dark never having seen how she was dressed – that is, as if I were blind. I can see with my ears, as the blind do. Sometimes my seeing gets in the way of my hearing. This was one of them.
There were other things I learned, but this is the one to write home about rather than letting it slip into the ether of memory. Trust my other senses.