Covid-19, secularism and hypocrisy

When Premier François Legault appeared on May 12 at his daily press briefing on the COVID-19 pandemic, accompanied by his health minister and director of public health, all three of them wearing a face mask, I almost fall out of my chair.

This was the same François Legault who brought last year the controversial Bill 21 that banned in Quebec public servants in positions of “authority” while on duty from wearing religious symbols, including the niqab, a religious face cover some Muslim women wear. It was the same François Legault who was adamant about the importance of protecting the secular values in face of the fear of what some view as the “Islamization” of Quebec society (Muslims represent only three per cent of the total population). Nevertheless, this same François Legault is now insisting on wearing a face mask and encouraging all Quebecers to follow his example when they go out in public spaces.

Of course, the face-covering Legault and his minister and top bureaucrat wore didn’t emanate from a religious requirement, but rather from a health-protection measure. However, when a Muslim woman decides to cover her face, it is automatically perceived as a degrading and submissive sign. Most of the time when face covering it is implicitly assumed that it is her husband, father or other male relative who forced her to do so.

But when Legault, a man, strongly recommends that his fellow Quebecers wear a mask (and may perhaps soon make it a requirement) this move is described as “good respiratory etiquette.” So if a Muslim woman who is wearing a hijab (hair covering) decides today in those circumstances to wear a face cover for religious reasons, a niqab, how can we in all honesty distinguish between “good respiratory etiquette” and what someone might call “religious etiquette”? What would make a face covering switch from a benign or even useful thing to a malign or degrading one? Would the meaning of the mask depend on the identity of the person wearing it, to make it either dangerous or harmless? Wouldn’t that be called racial profiling? Is a face covering worn by a white woman is commended as good etiquette and good citizenship, while the same face covering worn by a brown woman is automatically portrayed as misogynist and degrading?

The same question would be relevant if asked about a man wearing a face cover. For Legault, this is a sign of prevention from disease and civic duty, but for a Black or other racialized man wearing a face mask, it would be most likely portrayed as a sign of suspicion, danger and potential attack.

In France, from where most of the secular debate is imported to Quebec, the hypocrisy is so blatant these days.

Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy once declared: “Citizenship should be experienced with an uncovered face. There can be no other solution but a ban in all public places.”

However due to COVID-19, the tables have flipped. The French government recently made face masks mandatory. The fine for not wearing a mask on public transport is 135 euros, whereas, since 2011, the country’s law prohibiting Muslim women from wearing the niqab in public imposes a fine of 150 euros.

In the last decade, France, Denmark, Austria, Belgium and many other Europeans countries introduced legislation to ban the niqab. Those legal bans were preceded by toxic public debates that fueled Islamophobia, especially against Muslim women, despite the fact that the number of Muslim women in these Europeans countries is small and doesn’t justify the introduction and passing of these bills.

Even in Canada, in 2015, prime minister Stephan Harper ran a federal election campaign trying to polarize public opinion by creating a wedge issue around the case of Zunera Ishaq, a Muslim woman wearing the niqab that Harper at that time wanted to stop from taking her citizenship ceremony while wearing a face covering.

One argument claims that a niqab worn for religious reasons and a mask worn for health purposes are two totally different things. For some, the former is a symbol of women’s subjugation (some people went further, calling niqab wearers “bank robbers”) whereas the latter is intended for protecting individuals and assuring their safety — no questions asked about the security issues posed by a mask or the importance of liberal values.

Assuming this is true, how can we differentiate between the two? By looking at the person wearing them? Wouldn’t that be further evidence of racial profiling, suggesting the same object has two distinct meanings depending on who is wearing it?

Another argument would state that a niqab poses a threat for national security, whereas a health mask doesn’t. This is not true, since all women who wear a niqab agree to remove their niqab to show their face at airports, and for security reasons. There are no known incidents that indicate national security incidents happened with women wearing a niqab, but what will happen for people wearing face masks once the airports start operating again? Will the face masks be allowed? Why wouldn’t they be considered a national security threat?

This is another example of how the COVID-19 pandemic shows the hypocrisy of some politicians, and how a narrow and misleading definition of secularism was used against the rights and liberties of certain Muslim women in many democracies that most of the time pretended to be champions of freedom — except when it came to face coverings … Well, until face coverings became strongly recommended or mandatory!

This column was originally published at rabble.ca

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