What exactly is the difference between a face mask and a niqab? Both are considered choices, but it’s the latter that has been banned in many countries.
It’s 2021, and on a record-breaking hot day in Vancouver, I decide to ditch my face mask and rely on my headscarf. Sometimes, I use the long ends of my scarf as a face covering.
But, every time I make that decision, I’m more on alert than other days.
What if someone attacks me? What if someone is looking at me and assumes that I’m a threat? Should I remove the cloth over my face? It’s just a piece of cloth though, right?
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But, it’s not just a piece of cloth for many Muslim women.
You might wonder why I put myself through this mental turmoil. Why not just wear a mask and save myself from the fear? But my question to you would be, what’s wrong with me covering my face this way?
Some Muslim women wear a face covering for religious reasons. It’s called the niqab (face veil). And although I have never worn it, this pandemic forced me to think: what if I did choose to wear one?
If there was no pandemic and face mask mandates, how differently would people perceive me if I wore a face veil?
Many Muslim women wear a niqab as a religious choice. But, freedom to choose is often questioned when it’s a Muslim woman’s choice. Suddenly, her choice to cover her head, body and face is seen as “oppression.”
When a Muslim woman covers her face by choice, she is neither jeopardizing her own health nor anyone else’s. But when someone chooses to not wear a face mask during COVID-19, it’s a serious health risk for yourself and others around you.
Which of the two actually sounds dangerous to you?
Canada was my utopian dream until I moved here in 2019. As I learned about this country’s problematic and disturbing history of colonialism and racism, I discovered that although Canada doesn’t explicitly ban the niqab, it has other covert ways that perpetuate Islamophobia. Quebec’s Bill 21, which led to the removal of a Grade 3 teacher from her classroom in late 2021, is just one example.
Fatemeh Anvari was moved to a position outside of the classroom because she chose to wear a hijab to work.
What is Bill 21?
A controversial law, Bill 21 was passed in March 2019 as “an act respecting the laicity of the State.” In simple words, it’s legislation that bans many public servants from wearing religious symbols at work.
Religious symbols such as hijabs, niqabs, burqas, turbans, and kippahs are banned for all public sector employees in positions of authority. This includes police officers and public school teachers.
And the federal government refuses to interject.
In December 2021, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that he doesn’t want to “give the excuse of a fight between Ottawa and Quebec” and would not step in to take action against the discriminatory bill, despite his stated opposition to it.
Acceptable face covering
As part of our new normal, it has become acceptable, even preferable, to see people cover their faces. It was also one of the first times I felt free to cover my face in public, without fear of judgment.
Quite ironic, right? Well, it definitely was for Wafaa Barakat, 28, who had a good laugh at it. She has now been wearing a niqab for a decade.
“It was hilarious because as a Muslim woman, I don’t shake hands with men, and I wear a niqab. So, I made a joke about it at work and pointed out that now nobody shakes hands, and everyone covers their faces and I fit in so well,” she said.
She recalled a time pre-pandemic when she was approached by a man who asked her whether she could breathe properly through her face covering.
“Ironically, now everyone wears a face mask and they’re breathing just fine,” she said.
Although she shared these experiences in jest, Barakat still feels the need to be cautious of her surroundings because of how she dresses.
“At times when I see that the train station isn’t crowded, I remove my niqab because my safety comes first and while on the bus, I try to sit at the back so no one can sit behind me and do something.”
Barakat grew up in Canada as an immigrant and believes that lack of dialogue and questioning in Canadian culture has led to the fostering of negative stereotypes.
“Canadian culture doesn’t teach us how to have difficult conversations and you cannot solve a mystery without questions. We’re taught to never speak about our politics, religion, and stereotypes and so, we learn from the media. When you Google ‘why do Muslim women cover their face?’ and find a Quora link that tells you we’re ‘oppressed,’ you believe it.”
Recently, Islamophobia was on display when the Canadian Medical Association Journal published a letter by Dr. Sherif Emil, referring to the hijab as an “instrument of oppression.”
Although the journal formally apologized and retracted the letter, this problem is deep-rooted.
According to Statistics Canada, 10 per cent of police-reported hate crimes in 2019 were targeted against Muslims.
In July 2021, after a Muslim family of five from London, Ontario, was murdered in a violent attack, the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) released a list of 61 recommendations for federal, provincial and municipal governments across Canada to combat Islamophobia.
One of the policy recommendations is for provinces to establish hate crimes accountability units.
Even though the council doesn’t gather hate-crime data, Fatema Abdalla, communications manager for NCCM shared that a string of attacks against Muslims have taken place since the pandemic began.
“Underrepresented individuals have difficulty filing a hate-crime report to the RCMP because either charges are never laid or their report gets struck,” said Abdalla.
“Despite [people wearing face masks in public], we [have] seen Muslim women being marginalized historically. We have been working with the federal government to ensure that most, if not all, policy recommendations are implemented but the successes are far too little to name.”