Yasmin Bakkar, 26, is a practicing Muslim and a cover teacher in secondary schools across Leicester. Bakkar has worn the niqab [a face veil that covers everything but the eyes] since she was 14-years-old. Her choice to do so has been religiously important to her, but this has resulted in occasions where she has been made to feel uncomfortable in public and has been a visible target for Islamophobia in Britain.
This was particularly the case in 2018, when now-prime minister Boris Johnson compared women who wear the burqa to “letterboxes” and “bank robbers”. In the same Telegraph column he also said it was “ridiculous” people chose to wear the covering. This single article resulted in a 375 per cent spike in Islamophobic incidents, according to monitoring group Tell Mama. In the three weeks following its publication, 42 per cent of offline incidents reported “directly referenced Boris Johnson and/or the language used in his column”, which included calling Muslim women in veils or niqab, “letterboxes” and “ninjas”.
But as the coronavirus pandemic continues to sweep the globe, and governments are trying to establish means of controlling the virus spread, Muslims are no longer going to be the covered-minority. From 15 June 2020, Boris Johnson – the same politician who caused a wave of anti-Muslim sentiment with his column in 2018 – has made it mandatory that all people in England wear face coverings on public transport. The government even issued guidelines on how to make your own face covering at home.
Although the motivation for wearing the face covering is different from the religious prescription of face covering, the outcome is the same: a nation now being mandated to wear the same garment that a minority (it is not known exactly how many women wear the niqab, although there have been some reports statistics have been inflated) has historically been scrutinised, and mocked, and in some countries like France and the Netherlandds, penalizing for choosing to adopt it.
Although Muslim women welcome the mask, they are at the same time frustrated at the difference in narrative. “If I’m wearing the niqab and the person next to me is wearing the face mask, we’re covering the same parts of our face, we’ve just done it for different reasons,” says Bakkar.
Many of the arguments made against the Islamic face veil worn in public in the last decade have centred around the idea that you cannot be part of a working society if you do so; that people cannot speak to you, that you cannot be identified by authorities, or that without full visibility you may present a security risk. This argument is somewhat invalidated by the pandemic, especially in countries like France where the government made all religious face coverings illegal in 2011. Since May 10 2020, the government has made Covid-19 face coverings mandatory with penalty fines for those who disobey. At the same time, the French government confirmed that its years-long ban on wearing burqas, niqabs and other full-face coverings in public will remain in place. In other words, while French citizens nationwide will be covering their faces, women who do so with Islamic garb are still subject to punishment.
France was the first European nation to pass such a nationwide ban. Five others — Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark and the Netherlands — have followed with national or partial bans. Other have local bans in some cities or are considering legislation on broader bans.
The United Nations Human Rights Committee in 2018 said that France’s ban violated women’s freedom of religion and “could have the effect of confining them to their homes, impeding their access to public services and marginalizing them.”
Practicing British Muslim Bakkar says the next few months will provide a changing landscape for her relationship with her niqab. She normally takes it off in public where she feels threatened. Now she has switched to a face covering incorporated with a mask, which reduces her anxiety and makes her feel less of a target.