Banning Masks in a Pandemic (But Only for Muslim Women)

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So I was scrolling through news headlines the other day and I saw something that made me stop and just have, like, a full 5 second pause during which I tried to figure out which timeline I was currently in. Like, I get these really realistic dreams where it’s like a monster is phasing through my ceiling and I will wake up during it and spend a minute or so trying to figure out where I am and what is happening. I had that exact same confusion when I read this: “Switzerland Approves Ban On Face Coverings In Public.”

Like, I know American conservatives are constantly praising some European countries for doing stupid things to let COVID-19 spread, but this was a whole new level. Like, the thing we know works best for preventing the spread of the pandemic (besides staying the fuck home) is wearing face coverings. I know Texas recently said you don’t have to wear them (stupid) but now Switzerland of all places is saying you can’t wear them? YIKES.

But I clicked through to the article and everything became clear, as I was magically transported to a time before a virus killed 2.6 million people in about a year. A time when one of our biggest worries was women’s fashion.

Seriously, the pandemic has been so overwhelming, I forgot burqa bans were a thing. What other relics will I rediscover once everyone is vaccinated? Bigfoot? Breatharians? Richard Dawkins?

Let me catch you up in case you’re new to this, or in cast COVID has destroyed your brain: in some cultures, women are assumed to have great magical powers to use their bodies to lure men into doing horrible things like raping them. Wait, did I say “some” cultures? I meant, um, most cultures. But in some of those cultures, this has led society to control what women can and cannot wear in a way that men are not subjected to. Wait, did I say “some” again? I think I meant “most” again. Sorry.

But in SOME of THOSE cultures, women are expected to cover themselves with so much fabric that at times you can only see their eyes. And hell, sometimes not even their eyes. The burqa is one example: it’s a full-body covering that also hides the face, leaving only a bit of mesh for the woman to peer out of.

The burqa predates Islam, but these days it’s mostly worn in Islamic cultures. Most Islamic scholars point out that there’s nothing in Islam’s holy books that mandates coverings like the burqa or niqab, but it’s exactly like it is with Christianity and abortion or homosexuality: you always have some asshole “interpreting” the text to mean whatever he wants it to mean.

While I obviously feel it’s necessary to point out that restrictive dress codes for women are not unique to these cultures, I also feel it’s necessary to point out that some (and yes this time I do mean “some”) of these cultures mandate it to a degree far beyond what we see elsewhere. While research has demonstrated that many, many women wear various levels of coverings for their own personal reasons — it is, after all, fashion, and while society influences what we want to wear individuals can still make choices within and outside of that influence — there are places like Afghanistan, where under Taliban rule women were forced to wear burqas against their will. This is fucked up bullshit. Burqas are restrictive by definition, and they make it nearly impossible for women to enjoy the full range of physical activity that would be available to men who did not have to wear them.

To put it in “Western” terms, society expects me to wear high heels at fancy dressy events. I’ve worn flats before and it’s not a big deal. I’ve worn high heels before even though they hurt my feet and back. High heels are extremely restrictive — I can’t run or hike or surf in them, or even wear them for longer than a few hours even if I’m just standing there, but I like wearing them sometimes because I grew up in a society that thinks they look cool and sexy, so I think they look cool and sexy. Not everything has to be functional. But if a new government came into power that mandated I couldn’t leave the house without high heels, now it’s a fucking problem. Now I’m not going to leave the house as often, because I have back problems. Now I can’t go for a hike in the woods. Now I can’t go surfing. Now I can’t stand go anywhere where I might have to stand in line for a long time, or carry heavy groceries. My life would be severely impacted.

But let’s say there was another country on the other side of the world where they did enact that law. And when people from that country emigrated to the United States, I might see their women walking around everywhere in high heels. They’re stumbling, their achilles tendons have shortened, they don’t leave the house as often, and they never come to the neighborhood wiffle ball game. It’s so sad! All because men love seeing women look cool and sexy in high heels and the women who were raised in that society think it’s their moral imperative to wear them all the time.

What’s the solution? Well, what if my country decided the answer is to ban women from wearing high heels in public? So, no one was forcing me to wear them, but I like wearing them sometimes. But now I can’t. Because I’m a woman, and I need to be protected from my own fashion choices, apparently. It sucks for me, but it really sucks for the women who are culturally conditioned to think that they absolutely cannot leave the house without high heels. Because this law won’t make everyone suddenly say “OH, I guess our cultural traditions are bullshit, let’s go for a hike!” No, it will simply mean that instead of these women occasionally hobbling around outside, they will now simply never go outside, either by their own choice (because they think heels are that important) or by their husband’s choice (because it’s men who have ultimately mandated all this anyway).

Bull. Shit.

And that’s what’s been happening for a long time with burqas and other face-coverings that we associate with Islamic cultures. So Switzerland, having apparently conquered the deadly pandemic that has terrorized the world for the past year, has gotten back to the important business of banning face coverings. But don’t worry! They left in an exception for “health” reasons, like avoiding catching and spreading a pandemic. Oh and another exception for “security.” Oh and one more exception for weather, so if it’s chilly you can wear a scarf. Oh and another exception for “culture,” but not that culture. They mean, like, Halloween and Carnival. Come on guys, at some point you just gotta come out and say it: this law is specifically aimed at Imani, the lady that lives just off the Bahnhofstrasse.

Because there’re literally a few dozen women in Switzerland who wear face coverings for cultural (but not Hallween) reasons. For real. Researchers looked into it and found “20 to 30 women, and a max of three dozen” who wear a niqab, which is a veil that leaves the eyes uncovered. They found zero women who wear a burqa.

Such an important matter. Such progressiveness.

So we have a law that specifically dictates the fashion choices of a handful of women (and only women), who may or may not be oppressed by their husbands or other family members, and whose theoretical oppression will not be affected by this law in any way other than to probably increase said oppression by further restricting their interactions with the outside world. How the fuck did this get passed?

I’m not a huge fan of applying “horseshoe theory” to everything — that’s the idea that the far left and the far right eventually wrap around to get cozy with each other — but in this case, it happened. Far right politicians who are terrified of Muslim invaders wanted to punish Muslim women, while left-leaning feminists wanted to protect them. Enough of each group voted in favor of the ban, allowing it to pass with a slim majority.

The reality is that we cannot end the oppression of women by passing laws that dictate what women may do or not do. Like…that’s literally just more oppression, you guys. And if you couldn’t see it before, then I hope that this pandemic has made it blisteringly obvious: in France, a woman can get fined $165 if she’s caught in public without a mask. But if an officer thinks her  mask looks like a niqab, she can then be fined $180. Because she’s being oppressed. “Thank you officer, here’s $180. I feel so much less oppressed now. I’m going to go home and finally experience freedom now. Thank you.”

What is the solution to oppressive wardrobe requirements for women? Well first we have to stop making government mandates about what women (and only women) can and cannot wear. Yes, that includes saying that men can go around topless but women can’t, for…reasons. (And while I don’t think any countries outlaw men wearing skirts, I also don’t think that businesses should restrict their employees from that, for the record. Skirts are nice!)

Once we do away with laws regulating women’s bodies, we still will be left with culture, that great invisible annoying asshole. And that’s trickier to change, but a huge part of that change is making sure that women — especially women who are being actively oppressed — have the ability to interact with and move about in more progressive cultures, even if that means they wear something you don’t like to do it. It means getting those women AND the men education. It means exposing them to the progressive idea that women can and should be in control of their own bodies at all times.

That’s a tough message to send when you’re fining them for their fashion choices.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon mstdn.social/@rebeccawatson Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky @rebeccawatson.bsky.social

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  1. The argument I’ve had some success using (it’s not a 1:1, but it gets people like my mother thinking in the right direction) also ties in to “men can go around topless but women can’t, for…reasons”. I’ve compared a facecovering ban to a chestcovering ban – requiring women to be topless. There isn’t anything inherently wrong about exposing either a face or a chest, but there are cultural influences that are not just imaginary, they are real.

    Like I said, it’s not 1:1 comparable, but it’s a similar enough flavour.

  2. It amuses me that there are more women in my neighbourhood who wear niqab than the whole of Switzerland. Before the ban, as well as after.

    But also… is there any evidence from anywhere that banning culturally-specific clothing helps? Has someone banned halloween masks and noted a drop in child abductions (or whatever crime it is that is celebrated during halloween)?

    I’m also inclined to see it as “desire to control women” rather than any kind of horseshoe theory, mostly because I’m not convinced that a pure left-right political dichotomy is useful for anything except allowing the use of cheaper political reporters (“ur dur left win this week”). When you get some unholy clot of TERFs, righteous feminist Karen types and authoritarian conservatives working together… that’s all about dictating the correct way to behave.

    In Australia it’s notable that our “ban the burka” politicians are also famous for “it’s ok to be white” and wanting “a final solution to immigration”. Also a giant animatronic dinosaur, but that’s a different faction.


  3. Let’s solve mass incarceration in the U.S.! Just ban Black men from ‘choosing’ to wear leg-irons and stripes.

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