PARIS: France has said that everybody will be required to wear a face mask on public transport to avoid spreading coronavirus, reigniting the debate about a national ban on face coverings worn for religious reasons.
The ban, which was introduced in 2010 when Nicolas Sarkozy was president, outlaws the wearing of veils and masks that cover the face. Wearing such a face covering, like the burqa or niqab, is punishable by a 150 euro ($162) fine and/or enforced participation in citizenship education.
However it excludes face coverings worn for health reasons.
“They are two completely separate things,” Olivier Roy, a French political scientist and professor at the European University of Florence, told Arab News. “The burqa ban concerns the policy of ultra-secularity that we have had for 20 years in France, whereas wearing a protective mask that covers the face attracts the derision of some Muslims who are opposed to the burqa and veil ban.”
In early March, as the disease began to spread across the country, there were reports of scams related to face coverings. In one incident men dressed as police officers confronted a group of mask-wearing Chinese students and ordered them to pay on-the-spot fines because they were breaking the face-covering law.
The pandemic has also led to people wearing improvised face coverings — like scarves and bandanas — as the government was reserving masks for health workers.
French Muslims have remarked on the double standard of the burqa ban remaining in force when everyone is now obliged to wear a mask in public.
“I had no mask and I was allowed in by the police in a train station where covering my face for religious reasons with a scarf before COVID-19 was not allowed and sanctioned because of its ban in any public space,” one woman wrote on social media. “This is irony itself.”
Roy said that public opinion had focused on Islam since 2015, the year of deadly terror attacks in France that were claimed by Islamists.
“Before COVID-19, the whole debate in France was about the Islamization of neighborhoods, the relationship between jihad and young people who were fighting the police, the role of the Muslim Brotherhood, secession and civil war. However, the social movements that have been taking place in France for the past five years have nothing to do with Islam.”
In 2013, 300,000 people marched in Paris to protest against same-sex marriage, Roy added. The “yellow vest” demonstrations that began in 2018 were not anti-Islam, they were about perceived economic injustices and Muslims were among the protesters.
“These two big movements put hundreds of thousands of people into the streets, but Islam had nothing to do with either of them.”
The issue of face masks for COVID-19 had no relevance to the debate about Islam and the veil although some were trying to turn it into a political issue about Muslims in French society, the professor said.
A few social media posts from Muslim women pointing out the irony of having to wear a face mask as a health precaution while they were unable to wear a veil was not an attempt to launch a protest movement against the burqa ban, according to Roy. The women were merely pointing out one of the odd effects that the current crisis was having on them. It was others who were attempting to politicize it, he added.
“It is not hypocrisy. It is schizophrenia in the end that makes the debate focus on a theme that has no concrete expression on the street or in French society.
“We keep talking about the Islamization of neighborhoods but we know nothing about it and the people mentioning it often have no experience of it.
“The women on Facebook who talk about the obligation to put on the mask while the burqa is banned are simply expressing irony.
“They now say that everybody mistakes the headscarf they wear to go shopping for an anti-coronavirus mask. This is neither a protest movement nor a political movement, rather, it is simple irony. Only these women, as well as the Washington Post, perceive this irony.”