As the world looks for ways to tackle the coronavirus pandemic, face masks have become commonplace in France and other countries that restrict face veils.
The wearing of protective face masks has become one of the most widespread means of combating the coronavirus pandemic globally even in countries where religious coverings are banned, an irony not lost on many.
After initially discouraging residents from wearing face masks over concerns to supply chains for key workers and doubts over their effectiveness, authorities across the world now near unanimously encourage their use, with some requiring that people wear them in areas they are likely to encounter crowds, such as on public transport.
In Austria, for example, residents are legally required to now wear masks in public places, such as supermarkets.
The requirement, which comes amid the exceptional circumstances of a global pandemic, is nevertheless a dramatic reversal from earlier Austrian legislation from 2017 that banned face coverings, a move aimed at Muslim women who wore the face veil but ended up including others too.
That ban was so strictly applied that a man wearing a shark costume distributing fliers for an electronics store was fined by Austrian police for falling foul of the law. It was later revealed that the stunt was organised by a PR company to make a “socially relevant point”.
In France, another country to ban face covering and where the New York Times believes there exists “a strong belief that the French would culturally reject the practice”, authorities have been caught short in securing enough masks.
At the start of the crisis, France had a stockpile of just 150 million face masks. While that number seems big, most types can only be used a certain number of times before needing replacement. The requirement for more masks had led to French authorities seizing masks destined for other European countries.
Beyond government legislation, Muslim women who wear niqab (face covering) are subject to greater levels of discrimination and threats of violence.
A 2015 study based in France found that 81 percent of victims of anti-Muslim violence were Muslim women who wore visible articles of their faith, such as those who wore the niqab or hijab (headscarf).
One unintended consequence of the surge in mask wearing is decreasing stigmatisation of women who choose to wear the niqab.
As Northwestern University scholar Anna Piela points out in an article for the Conversation, Muslim women are finding themselves looking a lot like everyone else.
“Now, in an unexpected turn of events, people across the West are jogging in face masks and grocery shopping in bandanas tied across their mouths. That’s making public life in the niqab much more pleasant, say Muslim women.” Piela wrote.
The exceptionality of the coronavirus pandemic is key to understanding how things will fare for women who cover themselves in the future, once things return to normality.
Governments have shown little sign that things will be anything other than business as usual, especially as far as religious clothing laws are concerned.
One trend that may complicate matters for legislators is the development of face masks as a fashion accessory.
Designers have incorporated interest in face masks by making them a part of outfits in recent catwalk shows.
As ordinary people get used to the idea of wearing masks, not just during the pandemic, but for protection against future diseases, it will become harder for governments to distinguish between those wearing face masks for religious purposes from those who have made it an essential part of their outfit.