Veiled racism: How the law change on Covid-19 face coverings makes Muslim women feel

From 15 June face coverings became mandatory on public transport in England, but for years Muslim women have faced scrutiny. Tahmina Begum speaks to niqabis about what they hope will change in a post-Covid world

Friday 26 June 2020 16:46 BST

Yasmin Bakkar, 26, is a cover teacher in secondary schools across Leicester, but is currently on maternity leave as her newborn daughter became part of “Generation C” – the babies born during Covid-19. Bakkar, who is a practicing Muslim, 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 does mean she has often 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”.

It is something that Sandra James*, from London, remembers vividly. “He legitimised the racists and Islamophobes,” she tells The Independent. James converted to Islam in 2006 and has worn the niqab for six years. “Most of my negative experiences have been when grocery shopping. I’ve been sworn at, told to go back to my own country, been called ‘ISIS’ or ‘terrorist’ so many times,” says James. On one occasion a stranger pushed a shopping trolley into James in Tesco – she was pregnant at the time.

The visibility of being a woman wearing a niqab, hijab, burqa, headscarf or face covering, is something many Muslims have become familiar with: between 2018-2019, 47 per cent of religious hate crimes in the UK victimised Muslims. A Tell Mama report indicates around 80 per cent of victims in these cases are visually identifiable Muslims – those wearing clothing “associated with Islam”. As well as a constant undercurrent of fear, Muslims have had to deal with spikes in hate crime following acts of global terrorism: the Christchurch mosque attacks caused a 600 per cent rise in UK anti-Muslim hate crime. One Muslim woman in Oxford had a man mimic gun noises at her when she went out wearing a hijab afterwards.

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. As well as encouraging them in other places it is hard to social distance like shops or supermarkets. 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, 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, for choosing to adopt.

Shaina Ahmed, a 32-year-old nursery teacher and wife of an imam in the south east of England, says that prior to Covid-19, wearing a niqab or face covering in Britain could be “so exhausting” because of the pressure, that she never “judge[d] others” who decided to take it off completely. “[I] feel like I have to be extra friendly in public, because I am representing the Muslim community to the non-Muslim community,” she says. “While also being upheld on a pedestal as the imam’s wife by the local Muslim community.”

These Muslim women say that although they welcome the introduction of face coverings now, they are 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 (particularly in airports, on planes and other forms of transport – previously inflammatory spaces for anti-Muslim sentiment and now the epicentre of virus face coverings).

The new rules have exposed people’s was never about breaching security measures."

This hypocrisy is most stark in the example of France, where the government made all religious face coverings illegal in 2011. On 10 May 2020 they made Covid-19 face coverings mandatory with penalty fines for those who disobey. Burqas are still banned.

Bakkar says all this shows is that it was never about logistical issues, and was actually centred in Islamophobia: “The new rules have exposed people’s biases,” she says. “It was never about breaching security measures or about identification or even it being a communication barrier in wider society. It was always what the veil represented and as it represents Islam, people assumed covering your face was a backwards mentality.”

James agrees. “The niqab has a bad reputation because whenever anything bad happens regarding terrorism or extremists, an image of a woman covering her face is always used in the media,” she says.

In the UK, wearing the niqab is often synonymous with a woman being oppressed or forced into wearing it (either by her husband or father). But for Bakkar, it was her father who asked her if she really wanted to wear it. For James, no one in her circles, Muslim or not, was happy with the idea of her wearing the niqab. Additionally, niqabi women are burdened with the notion they are “pulling Muslim women back”; James often notes how other Muslim women will step away from her as the only niqabi in the room: “Muslim women in the UK (who are women of colour) have tried very hard to integrate within society, so if I stand next to them or hug them, they worry they may be otherised,” she says.

These women hope that face coverings becoming mainstream for the foreseeable future on public transport – a place of much trauma for many Muslim women – will increase empathy and understanding. Ahmed says: “It will be nice for others to experience a partial face covering and become hopefully, more compassionate to those who are veiled outside of a pandemic.” She has already felt reassured by seeing others in face masks in the last 10 days.

“I saw a bunch of people on my street wearing a black face mask and it was nice to see people who look like me for once. It does make me think ‘what’s the difference between you and me’?”, she says. Ahmed says it will also allow her to utilise public transport more as previously she has always preferred to drive through fear of being attacked.

Similarly to Ahmed, 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.

Not only do I feel as though it confirms my beliefs and what I’m doing in society is not wrong, it’s now protecting my health...

The reason each woman chooses to wear the niqab or other face covering will vary, despite niqabis often being perceived externally as a homogenised group. Ahmed says in extending these garments to beyond the parameters of Islam, it has made it acceptable. Although this is hypocritical she feels comforted by the visibility of face masks, lessering her “otherness”.

“I’m doing this for personal reasons while the person next to me is doing it because of coronavirus,” she says. Ahmed also hopes Covid-face coverings will undermine any future arguments about niqabs being incompatible with society. “Not only do I feel as though it confirms my beliefs and what I’m doing in society is not wrong, it’s now protecting my health. That feeling is pleasant, however long it may last.”

Although we don’t know how long mandatory face coverings will last in the UK, if there is no prospect of a vaccine till at least 2021 and the threat of a second wave looming, it is reasonable to expect it won’t just be a flash in the pan. For Muslim women who have long-suffered thinly-veiled racism for wearing it, they hope face coverings will offer protection against the novel virus, as well as against future biases and hostility.

No longer can politicians or the public claim it is the face covering that presents a threat, when they need only to look in the mirror.

*Some names have been changed

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