It’s time to unmask your bigotry

(Courtesy of Bhabna Banerjee, Creative Director)

A few weeks ago, I went down to Service Canada to get my health card renewed, looking completely anonymous. A black mask obscured my facial features, and everyone around me was similarly unrecognizable. As people around me signed and stamped official-looking forms and government documents, no one removed their masks, and no one batted an eye. 

Government institutions in Canada and across the globe have comprehensively adapted mask-wearing into their procedures. But this has made a certain contrast of accommodation all the more striking. 

In Quebec, it is illegal to wear a religious face covering while receiving public services. In France, it is illegal to wear a religious face covering anywhere. And even in Ontario, from 2011 to 2015, government policy required the removal of a religious face covering when receiving certain services. 

And yet, in all of these locations, masks are mandatory as of 2020. 

Right now, masks are an absolute necessity in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Governments around the world have leapt to make accommodations in order to keep people safe. As a Canadian, the fact that federal and provincial governments have mandated face coverings in order to preserve my safety makes me feel incredibly reassured. 

However, as a member of the Muslim community, I’m acutely aware of the fact that many of my friends—who choose to cover their faces for religious reasons—don’t feel like they have that privilege. When it comes to religious face coverings, suddenly safety becomes an issue. 

Why is it when a member of a religious minority wants to exercise their freedoms of religion and expression, it’s disturbing, a safety risk, and an undue hardship to accommodate? But when a circumstance comes along in which the dominant majority need to cover their faces, it’s a public service? The answer to these questions is simple: bigotry. 

    If you’re not able to form a relationship with someone just because they’re wearing a niqab, but you’ve been doing just fine with people in masks, it’s probably because you’re a racist. 

Today, if a woman in Paris takes a stroll down the Champs-Élysées with her face covered by a mask, she’s following the law. But if a woman takes that same stroll with her face covered by a niqab, she’ll be charged a fine of €150, and potentially forced into citizenship classes. 

In Quebec, if a woman goes to the hospital wearing a niqab, she’s breaking the law. But if she goes wearing a mask, she’s following the rules.

When former Quebec premier Phillipe Couillard passed the religious face covering ban, he defended it on the grounds of safety, telling reporters: “We are just saying that for reasons linked to communication, identification and safety, public services should be given and received with an open face.”

Similarly, the parliamentary study that justified the French niqab ban said that “In free and democratic societies, no exchange between people, no social life is possible, in public space, without reciprocity of look and visibility: people meet and establish relationships with their faces uncovered.”

That’s funny—I’ve recently been seeing a lot of social life made possible with covered faces. I’m pretty sure the citizens of over 50 countries where masks are currently mandatory haven’t magically lost all their personal relationships.

If you’re not able to form a relationship with someone just because they’re wearing a niqab, but you’ve been doing just fine with people in masks, it’s probably because you’re a racist. 

     Bigotry can transform a piece of fabric on someone’s face from a national security threat into good citizenship, depending on the religion of the person wearing it.

It’s become clear to many members of the Muslim community that if you’re a racial or religious minority, it’s okay to be restricted and othered just because of how you look. If we wear something that makes us differ from the traditional, Eurocentric standard, it’s fine to discriminate against us. 

We’re totally dangerous, and it would be completely unreasonable to expect society to accommodate our scary, scary outfits. However, if one day “normal” people need to wear masks, the world can somehow bend over backwards to make it happen. 

Bigotry can transform a piece of fabric on someone’s face from a national security threat into good citizenship, depending on the religion of the person wearing it.

I don’t personally wear a religious face covering, and I don’t think I ever will. But I still value the fundamental freedoms of expression and religion, and so should progressive governments. 

I’m glad governments have been able to use logic and reason in order to mandate masks, and keep people safe. Now, I want to see that same logic and reason applied to rectify the racist and bigoted double standards in their policies.

If governments want to alienate marginalized people based on their clothing, they’re clearly free to do that. But now we know once and for all that it has nothing to do with public safety, and it’s not difficult to accommodate. The era of COVID-19 has made it clear that this bigotry can’t be masked.

About the Author

By Sakeina Syed

News Editor

news@excal.on.ca

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