Study Debunks Bias: Women in Muslim Garb Are Considered Most Credible Sexual Assault Victims

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Women who wear Muslim garments in court are viewed as more credible witnesses
Women who wear Muslim garments in court are viewed as more credible witnesses, Canadian study findsCredit: LANCASTER UNIVERSITY

Women attesting to sexual assault were considered more believable if they were wearing Muslim dress, says a tiny but intriguing British-Canadian study published this weekend in the Canadian Journal of Behavioral Science.

Only slight difference was found between wearing a niqab, which conceals everything but the eyes, and a hijab, which leaves the face exposed. But both were considered much more credible than a woman saying the same things while wearing the same black dress but without Muslim clothing signals.

The trigger behind the late-2018 study was a case dating to 2008: A complainant was ordered to remove her full-face veil while testifying against her two attackers, men from her family, at the urging of their lawyers. The lawyers argued that her credibility couldn’t be assessed because the niqab hid demeanor cues.

(The niqab-or-not wound up before the Supreme Court of Canada, which in 2012 declined to issue a blanket ruling, deciding that the requirement to remove the veil would be decided on a case-by-case basis. In 2013, the Ontario Court prioritized the potential negative consequences for the accused if she didn’t bare her face, and in 2014 she decided to testify without the face veil.

Uproar ensued. Academics supporting the right to personal choice noted empiric studies showing lying can’t be detected from facial expression. Others showed that neither judges nor lawyers have been demonstrated to have any ability to detect deception beyond chance levels. In other words, demeanor evidence is useless. Their argument was that wearing a niqab wouldn’t compromise trial fairness, so a Muslim woman should be able to keep her face concealed in court if she wants.

However, others argued that women in Muslim garb are less believed because of negative stereotypes regarding their coreligionists.

If anything, the study found the opposite.

“Contrary to our prediction, participants rated victims wearing a Muslim garment as more credible than those who did not wear a Muslim garment,” said Memorial University of Newfoundland’s Meagan McCardle. “Also contrary to our prediction was the finding that covering the face fully did not have a significant effect on credibility ratings,” she added.

There are caveats. The study was extremely small; was done among young undergrad students, not the general population; was done in Canada, where Muslims in 2011 made up only 3.2 percent of the population. Also, the great majority of participating students were women ... and the caveats go on.

So no generalities whatsoever can be reached, but it is always intriguing when research finds the categorical opposite of what was expected.

Women who wear Muslim garments in court are viewed as more credible witnesses, Canadian study findsCredit: LANCASTER UNIVERSITY

Yes, there is a bias...

After excluding some students who didn’t suit, including one who thought a balaclava constituted a religious garment, the study involved 120 undergrads aged about 20, of whom 82 percent were women. About half said they are religious.

Each student was shown one of four videos, all made by the same actress, a young Caucasian woman wearing the same black dress. The students were asked to rate her credibility. In one, the actress wore a niqab (face covered, religious garb); in one a hijab (face uncovered, religious garb); in the third she wore a balaclava (face covered, no, not religious garb); and in the fourth her face and hair were bare (no religious garb).

The victim and event script, which was based on reality, were identical in all four videos.

The results: The one perceived as most credible was the woman wearing a niqab, covered from head to toe, closely followed by the woman in a hijab, body and hair covered but the face exposed.

In third place was the woman in a balaclava (exactly like the niqab but some neck was visible). The least credible, by perception, was the woman without religious attire and with exposed face.

That is all that can be said. The rest is interpretation. The researchers themselves stress that research in the area of how Muslim clothing affects trial outcomes in the West is in its infancy.

But the fact is that their wee study indicates that if trial fairness is impacted by anything, it’s people thinking women wearing Muslim garments are more credible, pointed out Weyam Fahmy of Newfoundland. This could matter very much to people accused of sexual assault.

But why would women in religious outfits be considered more truthful? The paper suggests three possible reasons. First: Observers may assume that the religious would shrink from bearing false witness or lying. While the researchers don’t go there, it’s equally possible that some students personally think religion is a gigantic fraud but still believe that an “observant” woman believing in a chastising god would be less likely to fake a sexual attack story than a nonobservant one.

A second possibility the researchers suggest is that the students feel a woman in religious garb isn’t “asking for it,” while other women could be suspect in that respect. No minefield there, folks, let’s move along.

The researchers suggest a third possibility that could involve a whole other world of prejudices: “Muslim women, especially those who don a niqab or hijab, are often viewed as oppressed and therefore can be seen as being more vulnerable to sexual abuse.” So if a woman in Muslim garb says she was attacked, the chances are she was, the thinking goes.

Prof. Brent Snook pointed out that there was no real difference if the woman’s face was concealed or not: What made a significant difference was the Muslim garb. And who knows why the students felt that way: Maybe it’s because so many have experience with bald-faced lying.