After hearing her voice, I quickly realized that we did know each other - she was one of my classmates, in the very class we were currently enjoying a break from. The reason I hadn't recognized her standing next to me at the sink is because I had never seen her face before.
You see, she wears niqab, an Islamic head covering that leaves only the eyes uncovered. When paired with an abaya, as it usually is, the result is a woman clothed in a long swath of anonymous, shape-concealing black, with only the eyes to give any hint of an individual's identity.
I happen to like the veil in most of its many iterations, as long as a woman is wearing it by her own choice. It seems so liberating to me. The girl whose face I saw for the first time standing at the bathroom sink is the only one in my class who wears niqab specifically (though there are others who wear hijab). When she speaks, there is nothing to look at besides her eyes. There is nothing to hear but the ideas she is sharing. There are no judgments to make except the ones based on the words coming out of her mouth (which you can't even see). You really, honestly, fully, hear her, as a person - not as a collection of clothing choices or fashion mistakes or hairstyle decisions. You just look at her, and listen.
I wonder sometimes what it's like for professors here who have more than one niqab'd student in the same class. I mean absolutely no disrespect when I say that it must be hard to tell such students apart, at least at first, and at least from a distance.
I was glad to see my classmate's face at last, and it was interesting to see what she really looked like compared to the idea I had formed of her based on our previous conversations and her comments in class. Would I have taken her words differently had I known what she looked like ahead of time? Does a person's face really influence what opinions we form about their ideas? I think so, at least a little bit. And that's not necessarily a bad thing. We depend on so much more than just words to communicate a sense of ourselves.
But in a way, it was nice to have a chance to hear someone before seeing them.