Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Health Organization (WHO) has advised people who are coughing or sneezing to wear face masks. As a result, authorities in many countries have issued rules requiring face masks to be worn in public. In France, for example, wearing a face mask is compulsory on public transport.
States have a duty to protect essential workers who are at risk of contracting the virus in the workplace, including providing them with masks and other personal protection equipment. However, the current recommendations on wearing face masks also lay bare the absurdity of the arguments that some European governments have used to prohibit the wearing of face coverings in the public space.
Since 2011, policy makers have passed laws that prohibit covering one’s face in many European countries, including Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, France and the Netherlands. Their target: Muslim women wearing the niqab (a full-face veil), which many have also wrongly called a burqa.
The debates that preceded the adoption of those laws framed the wearing of the niqab as problematic. This often politically-charged public “debate” spawned discriminatory laws and saw an unholy alliance of right-wing populists, sections of the feminist movement and secularists.
The highest echelons of government engaged in a race to the bottom as to who could be more prejudicial.
In August 2019, Boris Johnson, the UK’s Prime Minister, compared Muslim women wearing full-face veils to “letter boxes” and “bank robbers.” It took him more than three months to apologise for his comments. In the three weeks following his speech, the NGO Tell MAMA reported that Islamophobic incidents targeting Muslims in the UK had risen by 375%.
In other countries, women wearing full-face veils received fines and were targeted with racist hate crime just for walking on the street. In 2017, a pan-European survey of the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights found that 22% of the Muslim women who participated in the survey and who wore a niqab or a headscarf had been insulted on the street.
It is disappointing that some courts have upheld such laws. In a puzzling judgment, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that wearing the full-face veil was against the notion of “living together.” No human rights law entertains the idea of “living together” as permissible criteria for states to restrict the rights to freedom of expression and to religion or belief.
Framing full-face veils as a security threat or as a symbol of women’s oppression is imbued with discriminatory stereotypes that are endemic to the “othering” of Muslim women because of their religion. The prohibition of wearing full-face veils is also a disproportionate restriction of the human rights of a minority, whose position in society is too often defined by discrimination and racism.
In the last couple of years, policy makers have also taken issue with wearing face masks in protests. In Hong Kong, where last year social movements organised mass demonstrations against the government, authorities have imposed a blanket ban on wearing face masks in protests. This has led to protesters facing harsh reprisals. In France, police arrested hundreds of people after a similar ban had entered into force in April 2019.
Public officials have instilled in the collective mind the spectre of hordes of protesters wearing black clothes and face masks who regularly indulge in smashing up banks and shops. However, masks are essential for protesting in places where there are very legitimate concerns about the use of facial recognition technology. Protecting public order does not justify a blanket ban on face masks in any protest, irrespective of concrete threats that they pose to public order. Blanket bans are a disproportionate restriction of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and to freedom of expression.
The way we interpret specific customs or behaviours is often socially and culturally constructed. Prejudice, stereotypes and “othering” often contribute to how we perceive specific practices. Governments and large sections of society in many countries have framed full-face veils and, more generally, covering one’s face, as threats to security and/or as a manifestation of gender inequality. They have presented their interpretations as dogmas.
However, these are just social and cultural constructions and they can change over time; we have already seen how the COVID-19 pandemic is disrupting them. Policy makers must use this opportunity to scrap laws prohibiting the wearing of full-face veils and blanket bans on wearing face masks in protests. The other option is requiring people to wear face masks to fight against COVID-19 and, at the same time, fining women for wearing full-face veils or protesters covering their faces. The irony, hypocrisy and discrimination of this situation should not escape us. Is a face mask used to fight the virus really that different from a niqab?
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