Muslim women who cover their faces find greater acceptance among coronavirus masks – ‘Nobody is giving me dirty looks’

Americans began donning face masks this week after federal and local officials changed their position on whether face coverings protect against coronavirus.

This is new terrain for many, who find themselves unable to recognize neighbors and are unsure how to engage socially without using facial expressions.

But not for Muslim women who wear the niqab, or Islamic face veil. Suddenly, these women – who are often received in the West with open hostility for covering their faces – look a lot more like everyone else.

 
Many people are using cloth to cover their faces during the coronavirus outbreak, San Francisco, California, April, 1, 2020. JOSH EDELSON/AFP via Getty Images

Targeted for their religious dress

I interviewed 38 British and American niqab wearers for my upcoming book on Muslim women who wear the niqab in the United States and United Kingdom. Almost all of them were British and American citizens, but they came from all across the world and all walks of life. They were converts from Christianity, Judaism, former atheists, white, African American, African, Arab and South Asian women.

The niqab – a garment that is not required by Islam but is considered recommended in some interpretations – is usually worn with a loose, coat-like garment called an abaya and a hijab, or headscarf. Some women pair it with a long skirt and tunic to conceal the body shape.

All the women interviewed for the book felt the spiritual benefits of niqab-wearing, which makes them feel closer to God and deepens their practice of Islam. But wearing it in public often subjected them to Islamophobic, racist and sexist street harassment.

Research confirms that Muslim women who wear Islamic dress in non-Muslim majority countries are frequently subjected to abuse. In a 2017 American study of 40 Muslim women, 85% reported verbal violence and 25% had experienced physical violence.

Wearing the niqab, the most conspicuous form of Islamic dress, is most dangerous. Eighty percent of British niqab wearers interviewed for a 2014 report by the human rights group Open Society Foundations had experienced verbal or physical violence.

The perpetrators tend to perceive niqab-wearing women as oppressed, backward, foreign, socially separated or a threat. Attackers often excuse their actions by citing security and immigration concerns.

‘Everyone suddenly understands it!’

Now, in an unexpected turn of events, people across the West are jogging in face masks and grocery shopping in bandannas tied across their mouths. That’s making public life in the niqab much more pleasant, say Muslim women.

 
Masked New Yorkers outside a grocery store, Brooklyn, New York, April 3, 2020. Michael Nagle/Xinhua via Getty

“There’s a marked difference to the way I’m being perceived. Nobody is giving me dirty looks because of my gloves and the covered face,” said a woman I’ll call Afrah, from the the U.K., in a Facebook Messenger chat. “Everyone suddenly understands it!”

I use pseudonyms to protect the identify of the women in my research, as talking about niqab use is a sensitive issue.

“I was wearing a handcrafted niqab today and it was amazing,” Jameelah wrote to me from France, where the niqab is legally banned in most public spaces. “Because of the situation, I didn’t receive malicious glares.”

Fashion designers are even trying to make face coverings look stylish – an effort that has Muslim women long perceived a security threat rolling their eyes on social media.

Rumana, a Muslim from Croatia, told me that the growing acceptance of face covering has helped her overcome a reluctance to use the niqab.

“I am usually an anxious person who doesn’t like to attract attention so that was always the biggest issue. Now that face coverings are seen everywhere,” she says, “I have finally found the courage to wear it.”

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