Global Extremes

Is there a difference between a niqab and a face mask?

The prevalence of face masks to fight the COVID-19 pandemic might help spark a more constructive conversation on the niqab.

Thomas Sealy
6 May 2020, 12.01am
Woman wearing a face cover waits at train station in Hessen, Germany. 27 April 2020
Picture by Boris Roessler/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved
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The Covid-19 pandemic and physical distancing rules enacted by governments around the world have changed the way we act and present ourselves in public spaces. In order to protect ourselves and others we are far more likely to give each other a wide berth in the streets and stand two metres apart in queues. A further feature of this is the presence of face masks. More and more people are wearing them when they go out to cover their mouth and nose, and some countries have even mandated it in law.

In western Europe some have seen in this trend the unmasking (pun intended) of a deep hypocrisy: in contexts where Muslim women who wear the niqab have been vilified for covering their face in public, and such forms of dress banned in some places, the sudden social acceptability, even encouragement and good social manners of face covering highlights the nonsensical attitudes towards those forms of female Islamic dress. The idea that face coverings prevent effective communication, for instance, is being tested and found a little wanting. Indeed, it has been suggested that ‘we are all niqabis now’, thus pointing to a symmetry between the niqab and face masks belied by the apparent hypocrisy.

Yet, neither the hypocrisy nor the symmetry actually allow us to grasp what is at issue and it is questionable as to whether the prevalence of face masks might help spark a more constructive conversation on the niqab. This is because in addressing the question, ‘is a face mask used to help block coronavirus really that different from a niqab?’ a good deal of caution is also warranted. The reason for this caution is that the answer from both sides, that of the women wearing them along with that of people banning them, is ‘yes, it is’. To understand why, we need to grasp the logic of niqab wearing, face mask wearing, and niqab banning.

Arguments over its effectiveness aside, face mask wearing, whether voluntary or mandated by the state, is based on protecting people from the virus and thereby is one measure in helping secure the health of the nation. Wearing face masks in these extra-ordinary times is in a way seen as a profoundly social measure.

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Niqab banning is also based on ‘protection’. To take one of the best-known examples, France brought in a ban on full face covering in 2011, the first European country to do so. Despite being technically indiscriminate, the ban is known as the ‘burqa ban’ as it is widely agreed to have been provoked by and targeted at the burqa and niqab. Justifications for the ban included positively promoting women’s liberty and equality, protecting public order, and ‘living together’.

When a challenge to the ban was brought before the European Court of Human Rights, the state’s defence was based on such coverings being “incompatible with the fundamental requirements of living together in French society” (the state won the case). That is, wearing these types of face coverings is seen as a profoundly anti-social act. It is on contravention of how ‘we’ come together in public spaces and marks out a cultural and religious ‘other’. This is why, for example, face masks are celebrated on French catwalks while niqabs are banned in public.

There might be a superficial symmetry between the mass face mask wearing and the face covering of Muslim women, but it is precisely this: superficial.

Caution is also warranted, however, when we approach the issue from the position of the niqab wearers. Women I have spoken to have in fact mentioned the niqab/face mask symmetry, in pre-pandemic times too. Vidya (not her real name), for instance, remarked about the benefits of wearing it: “That it’s good you know, when people are sick in the vicinity, you don’t get their sickness ‘cause your face is not exposed, so when people cough on you or spit, you don’t have to worry about it. Benefits of the niqab… it keeps your face warm, really nice in the winter time”.

But the symmetry breaks down when it comes to the reasons for wearing it. Vidya also talks about her relationship with God and how this orients and guides her choices regarding dress, behaviour and so on. This is because for many women who wear forms of dress such as the niqab, burqa, or hijab it is a profoundly religious act. To quote another woman I spoke to: “It’s between me and God”.

Abdal Hakim Murad (Tim Winter), a lecturer at Cambridge University, Dean of Cambridge Muslim College and an influential Muslim thinker, has in fact decried the fact that veiling has been increasingly seen in terms of identity affirmation stripped of its religious and theological content. The reason for wearing face and head coverings then is substantively different and no simple comparison reflects this; such a comparison would in fact ‘misrecognise’ the meaning of these forms of dress. In fact, the agency of women and their decision and views are noticeably absent from many of the political decision-making processes that feed into their being banned.

While there might be a superficial symmetry between the mass face mask wearing we now see on the streets throughout Europe (and the world) and the face covering of Muslim women, it is precisely this: superficial. This is why there is reason to be cautious about how it might positively impact Muslim women who cover their faces in public spaces in western Europe. We still need much better and much more profound conversations about the place of public manifestations of religion, especially with regard to religious ‘others’, if we are to be really able to reach a point where the difference between a face mask and a niqab can be appreciated at the same time as the latter forms no barrier to interacting with our fellow citizens. Will what we are seeing in the pandemic help move these conversations along? One can hope.

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, under the GREASE project (grant no. 770640) and the BRaVE project (grant no. 822189).

The opinions expressed in these blog posts are the sole responsibility of the authors. The European Union is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information or opinions contained herein.

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