Face masks, the new accessory to our everyday outfit in the time of COVID-19, has led to the rise of clothing stores manufacturing new masks for both style and protection. However, there seems to be a type of mask that may always be seen as controversial, even during COVID-19: the burqa and niqab. Worn as fuller face and body coverings to establish modesty by Muslim women, the burqa and niqab are more so viewed as an element of Islamic extremism. At the end of the day, though, whichever form of mask an individual wears, whether a regular cloth face mask, a surgical mask, or Islamic full-face veils, they all seem to serve the same purpose—to protect oneself in public. The only unique aspect about burqas and niqabs is that they are worn by those Muslim women who choose to do so for their own religious expression.
Especially during COVID-19, it is interesting to see how face coverings are required in countries such as France which have still upheld the national legislative ban on the burqa and niqab. Zozoliina, a French Muslim influencer, and blogger, states in an email interview, “The burqa and niqab are forbidden in France under penalty of fines up to 150€, and this legislation entered into force on the 11th of October, 2010.” Enforced by the French government, this ban does not directly target burqas or niqabs but instead focuses on total facial concealment in public, as masks need to be removed for identification checks as expressed in a statement by the French minister’s office to CBS News. This wasn’t the first time that France enforced legislation targeting individuals’ religious freedom.; In 2004, Islamic headscarves, as well as Christian crosses and Jewish yarmulkes, were banned in public schools to supposedly keep state institutions religiously neutral. Even the Muslim head covering, the hijab, “… is not allowed…at work, and I believe that it is a real discrimination!” Zozoliina said. The unnecessity of the ban on Islamic face coverings is further exemplified by the few numbers of women who actually observe this practice; as the Muslim community in France grows, the population of Muslim women who observe the niqab has remained constant or relatively decreased. While some women who choose to firmly stick to their beliefs have been repeated offenders of this law despite knowing the consequences, others may now be confined to their homes as a result of not being able to feel comfortable enough to go out. In this way, instead of integrating Muslims into French society, this law has marginalized a part of the Muslim community.
Worn as fuller face and body coverings to establish modesty by Muslim women, the burqa and niqab are more so viewed as an element of Islamic extremism… Especially during COVID-19, it is interesting to see how face coverings are required in countries such as France which have still upheld the national legislative ban on the burqa and niqab.
The ban on the niqab and burqa is just one of the aspects that has heightened Islamophobic sentiments, leading to the current situation in France wherein the president refuses to condemn the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, causing clashes between France and the Muslim world. In October 2020, two veiled Muslim women were stabbed at the Champ de Mars park near the Eiffel Tower by two women who also yelled racial slurs at them. Two Jordanian siblings were also beaten by a man and a woman after they heard them speak in Arabic at a bus stop. Stereotypes about Muslims in the media have culminated into this injustice, and it is important that these injustices are recognized and that we educate ourselves to take actions against them.
There has long since been many stereotypes about minorities in the media, and Muslims are no exception. A common recurring theme in the entertainment industry is showing Muslim women from conservative family backgrounds and cultures as being forced to wear the hijab. The only way to be free of this strict atmosphere is to remove their hijab and find their true identity in the Western world, leaving behind their own traditions and values. Such movies and shows include Hala (2019 movie), Elite (Spanish thriller TV series from 2018-present), and Cuties (2020 French drama film). Elite, a highly popular show on Netflix, is the story of a typical rebellious teen. However, the overall storyline revolves around the stereotypical conservative family background where the only way out is to escape and rebel. “Elite portrays and vehicles a stereotype that I personally find crude,” Zozoliina states. “I think that the author didn’t put enough work on his script and vision….Lots of women are taking off their veil/hijab for personal reasons just like women that decide to wear it. Muslim women are free with or without a hijab… Freedom is ours since we are born–God created us with free will, and we should all live on this basis.”
Samina Ali, the curator for Muslima: Muslim Women’s Art and Voices and the co-founder of the American Muslim feminist organization Daughters of Hajar, expresses a similar opinion. “What a woman wears on her body has nothing to do with the fact of whether she’s liberated or not liberated,” Ali conveys. She also explicates that it is important for Muslim women to have a diverse representation in the media, beyond the stories of those who wear the hijab. Kelly Crosby, a Muslim artist based in Atlanta, Georgia and whose work focuses on representing the diversity of Muslim women through her artwork, attests to this fact: “Just representing a community that is not heavily represented in the art world, was another important thing for me too. I also want to change the perceptions of Muslim men too and kind of expand the idea of what Muslim women look like in the general public…[there are] women who don’t wear hijab, [or those who wear a different hijab style] like a turban and a bun. This is to show people that we express Islam in so many different ways.”
The hijab has long since been viewed as a symbol of oppression for women in Islam. Moreover, face coverings such as the burqa and niqab are even more so viewed as an element of extremism. People with such beliefs often attest to the fact that women should wear these clothes in religious settings, such as at the mosque, and not in public. In fact, the idea of the hijab has been so misconstrued that even members of the Muslim community debate it. The reality of the situation, however, is that the hijab has to do more with one’s character and modesty as a whole; wearing a headscarf, face coverings, or other traditional clothing is simply a manner in which to practice the hijab. Amal Fawzy Abdelhafez, a lecturer of Arabic at UC Davis and a journalist, strongly believes in her motto, hijab al-qalb or hijab of the heart or soul, as a way to further her faith in Islam. In this way, Abdelhafez strongly believes that the hijab means, for both the Muslim and non-Muslims, “to work on themselves and be clean from the inside–to make their heart free of anger or ill feelings.”
At the end of the day, it is important to note “just how much the Abrahamic religions have in common,” Ali expresses. “When you look at the faiths, there are so many similarities. And what has happened over the years is we’ve all gotten lost and distracted from our commonalities and focused more on our divisions.” Both incorrect media representations and countries with overly strict religious practices such as Saudi Arabia have led to this, as can be seen in France’s controversial and nonsensical national ban on the niqab and burqa as well as current diplomatic policies regarding caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. It is important, now more than ever before, for all Muslims and non-Muslims to observe their own behaviors and attitudes that have gradually lead to the formation of these stereotypes and develop an understanding of the real, authentic Islam.