Those reading the title of this article will perhaps remember a book of similar name written by Martin Buber, I and Thou, first published in German in 1923. Buber’s main thesis in the book is that human beings have a choice in their relationships: they can either relate to another as to an “it”, an object to be used, or can relate to another as to a “thou”, experiencing true relationship with that other person. Buber’s point was that human existence finds its meaning in such true relationships, all of which are meant to bring us ultimately into relationship with God, the eternal Thou. The English translation of his work was timely enough, being printed in 1937, just two years before the beginning of the second world war. (Buber himself had impeccable timing; he wisely left Germany the next year in 1938, settling in Jerusalem. He died there in 1965.)
Building on Buber’s central insight, I would like to examine one component of relating to another “thou”—namely, the face of the other. In the Scriptural language of both the Old and New Testaments, the physical face assumes a great importance, and comes to symbolize the whole person and relationship with that person. Indeed, the word for “face” in both the Hebrew and the Greek (panim and prosopon respectively) often means “presence” and is sometimes translated that way. Thus, for example, when the Apocalypse says that one day earth and heaven shall flee away from Christ’s presence seeking to avoid His wrath at the Last Judgment, the word used for “presence” is prosopon, face (Rev. 20:11). When God grants a man access to His favour and blesses him, it is said that God “lifts up His face” to him (Num. 6:26). Thus the final goal of human existence and salvation is to “see His face” (Rev. 22:4), whereas for God to “hide His face” from us is to deny us His presence, which ultimately leads to death (see Pss. 69:17 and 104:29). In this Biblical usage, the face symbolizes and embodies our entire relationship with the other person. In the experience of human relationships, the face thus is not simply another part of the body, like a foot or a knee or even a hand. It assumes a pivotal importance, and in some sense carries the weight of the relationship.
We see this importance of the physical face to relationship in many ways. We see it in the classic insistence that one accused of a crime “face his accuser”—i.e. that the accuser not simply lodge an accusation and then hide, but bring the accusation forward himself, so that the accuser and the accused can look one another in the face. We see it in less forensic and dramatic settings also, as when someone insults us obliquely and we reply to them, “Say that to my face!” We see it in happier settings, as when we carry photos of the faces of those we love on our persons—your wallet, like mine, is doubtless filled with the faces of spouse and children and loved ones. In the Church we see this very principle enshrined in our iconography, for in icons we see Christ, His Mother and His saints with their faces full on, or at least somewhat turned to us. The face of the Lord and His saints are never authentically portrayed in profile—only the face of the devil is painted in profile, for the devil’s face we hope never to see and we want as little to do with him as possible.
Seeing a person’s face indicates an equality of relationship (in the case of God allowing us to see His face, the equality of course involves His infinite condescension). This equality is the whole point of the accused being allowed to see the face of his accuser. It is the whole point of friends looking each other in face as they talk together. (It also accounts for their desire not simply to talk to each other on the phone, but to “skype” where this is possible and see their faces while talking.) Thus, if I appear to you always wearing a mask so that you never see my face, the equality between us is destroyed. Treating another with equality and love, as a true “thou” in Buber’s terms, involves seeing the other’s naked face.
It is just here where the public use of the veil in the form of burqa or niqab (vestments which cover the face) is so problematic. There are other issues as well in this whole western debate over the public use of such a veil —issues like individual rights, security concerns, feminist concerns—issues which we cannot examine here. Here I would only like to focus attention on the fact that use of burqa or niqab in public have the effect of eroding personalism and equality. Of course that is, in many ways, the whole point of the vestment—to withdraw the person wearing it from the full effects of equality of relationship. Such equality and personalism between women and men was thought to be too dangerous, and to violate the purdah or seclusion in which women were kept in classic Islamic society. I suggest that the debate about the birqa first needs to settle the issue of equality and personalism before issues of dress; otherwise one will fruitlessly oppose one perceived “right” against another perceived “right” in a duel between a woman’s right to follow her religion and society’s right to security. The first question to be resolved therefore is: can a woman be a true “thou” to a man who is not her husband or family? Is true ontological equality possible between the sexes in their public roles? Is one allowed to look upon the face of the other? If not, then that other is (in Buber’s terms), not “thou”, but “it”, not a person with whom equality and friendship are possible, but simply “Woman”. The fact of gender here displaces any possibility of authentic personalism. For Christians, for whom love is more basic to humanity than gender, the healthy way forward is plain: we would look upon the face of all others with love and respect, and let them see our faces as well.