France bans niqab, hijab for Muslims but mandates face masks : Rough Translation The French republic "lives with her face uncovered," say the posters. But now face masks are mandatory. We look back at why covering your face in France used to be a sign of bad citizenship, until it wasn't.
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From Niqab To N95

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GREGORY WARNER, HOST:

Hey, you're listening to ROUGH TRANSLATION from NPR. I'm Gregory Warner. Here's a story about the new normal flying directly in the face of the laws of the old normal. The president of France, Emmanuel Macron, issued a decree that the French may not enter certain public places, like schools and the metro, without covering their face with a mask. There's a fine if you don't comply. But our correspondent in France Eleanor Beardsley brought to our attention a different French law that says, well, the opposite.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: The law actually says you cannot dissimuler your face - cover your face, conceal your face - in public.

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BEARDSLEY: And I found a little meme on TikTok of a guy talking about the absurdity of having 150-euro fine if you covered your face.

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OTIS NGOI: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: But now you have 125-euro fine if you don't cover your face.

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NGOI: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: And he was joking that Macron was a genius.

WARNER: 'Cause he's going to fill the French coffers with fines.

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NGOI: (Speaking French).

WARNER: He says, "Tomorrow, if you're seen by a cop without a mask, you'll get fined. But if you accept the fine and put on the mask..."

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NGOI: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: That would be an endless circuit of people taking off masks and putting on masks.

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NGOI: (Speaking French).

WARNER: "It's infinite."

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NGOI: Wow.

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WARNER: This is ROUGH TRANSLATION with far-off stories that hit close to home. I'm Gregory Warner. The fabric on our faces has us all asking a lot of questions about how we're supposed to be with each other. Like when you pass a stranger on the street, do you turn your face from them because that's the safest way to be? Or do you look them in the eye, cross that 6 feet distance with a smile or an eye crinkle as if to say - look, this isn't normal, but we'll get through this together. Because we're told that wearing a mask is something we do for each other not for ourselves - and yet it can feel like it's just separating us from our neighbor.

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WARNER: Today we look at how the mask is changing the way people relate to each other in a country where, until very recently, you were told that your duty as a citizen was to show everybody your face. ROUGH TRANSLATION, back after this break.

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WARNER: We're back with ROUGH TRANSLATION. I'm Gregory Warner. Eleanor Beardsley is our NPR correspondent in France. And she says that before the coronavirus, the law prohibiting covering your face was serious and impossible to ignore.

BEARDSLEY: It's sort of an obsession here because there's this poster that's on public buildings and even on the gym I go to with a picture of Marianne, who is the symbol of the French Republic. And it's like a statue, and it says the republic lives with its face uncovered. And you go in any place and often you see a sign that says no head coverings and no face coverings here.

I would go into the gym to go to my gym class and I'd ride my bike there. And so I'd wear my bike helmet. And I would be at the desk just showing my card and they would say, Madame, you have to take off your helmet. And it was just so obvious - of course I'm going to take off my helmet. I'm not going to keep my helmet on. But for me, it just demonstrated this sort of - people don't even realize it, but it's become sort of ingrained that you don't cover your head. You don't cover your face. It's just not something you do in France.

WARNER: And the funny thing is this belief is not that old. It came out of a series of national debates about French identity that happened a decade ago.

BEARDSLEY: And I went to a couple of them.

(CROSSTALK)

BEARDSLEY: They would be like townhall meetings. And people would show up to say, what does it mean to be French?

WARNER: And wait - so why does covering your face suggest that you're not French?

BEARDSLEY: Well, it leads back to Islam, whether anybody wants to say it or not.

WARNER: One of the most talked about subjects at these debates was something that directly affected relatively few French people. And that was the niqab, which is the Muslim face covering that hides the nose and mouth, often just leaves a gap for the eyes. French officials wanted to ban it.

BEARDSLEY: Some people said you should have the right to dress how you want. You can wear a miniskirt. How come you can wear - you know, we have these billboards showing women half nude in France. And they really are annoying sometimes - lingerie ads. I mean, they're practically naked. So you can have those in public. There was that whole aspect of, we're having this fight once again around women, what they wear, their bodies, et cetera.

WARNER: France has its own version of what it means to separate church and state. Just a few years before these debates about face coverings, France had prohibited the wearing of any religious symbols in a public school - so no yarmulkes, no large crosses, no hijabs and definitely no niqabs. But officials in these national debates wanted to go even further. They said that the niqab - the face covering - should not be allowed anywhere in public. And with the threat of terrorism, they said, the niqab was a security risk.

BEARDSLEY: When you speak with someone, you should be able to see their face.

WARNER: We wanted to find a French niqab-wearer to talk to us for this story. But there are so few of them, and it is still illegal. So we did talk to a woman in Melbourne, Australia, named Manal Shehab (ph) who wore the niqab happily for 21 years.

MANAL SHEHAB: I do love it, and I do have it sitting in my drawer. I have a few different colors. I've got purple and blue and green. And it's not necessarily black.

WARNER: Manal is a counselor and advocate for women who've suffered domestic abuse. And she actually stopped wearing the niqab two years ago because it was bringing too much attention to her, taking away attention from her advocacy work.

SHEHAB: I swore (ph) on me because of my niqab. So I thought, that's it; it's coming off. This niqab is a barrier now for me to support other women.

WARNER: But sometimes she misses it and she'll put one on just to go out and be out there in the world.

SHEHAB: To tell you the truth, I feel invincible when I'm wearing it because people are looking at me with a curiosity. Sometimes I see them shudder. And - they'll look at me, and they shudder. I actually deliberately go up and say hi, how are you? Look - you know, I'm a human being under here, and I'm wearing this because it's something that I want to do.

WARNER: She tells them it's her choice.

SHEHAB: And I'm advocating for that choice, just like I'd advocate for a person's - you know, their sexual orientation or a person choosing to - I don't know - whatever.

WARNER: In the debates about national identity in France, officials did not see niqabs as a woman's choice.

BEARDSLEY: It means a woman who was subjugated by her husband - un-French, un-Western, inegalitarian.

WARNER: They argued that the niqab violated the French ideal of gender equality.

BEARDSLEY: Everyone is equal. But to be equal, we all have to be at the same level under the flag of the republic. One local official said, how can I have a conversation with a person? They can fully see me, and I just see a slit for their eyes - it's not equal.

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WARNER: French Parliament released a study at the same time as these debates. They said that the national consensus was that in a free and democratic society, quote, "No exchange between people, no social life is possible in public space without reciprocity of look and visibility - people meet and establish relationships with their faces uncovered."

Exposing your face now became as French as kissing both cheeks and never sitting in a restaurant wearing a baseball cap.

BEARDSLEY: And now, all of a sudden, everyone is covering their face. And people have on hats and then a mask and sunglasses, and you can't tell who anyone is. And it just struck me completely - like, this is so crazy. All of a sudden, you need to cover your face in France.

WARNER: And you might expect - what is it? - three months or so into the quarantine, with masks on everybody's faces, that the French press would at least be taking note of this irony, of this sudden reversal in social norms. And how would the average French citizen feel who had been reminded day after day that their civic duty was to keep their face exposed? Would they now feel unnerved?

BEARDSLEY: You know, they're not. I can tell you they're unnerved by the coronavirus. But nobody is unnerved about not seeing a face.

WARNER: Eleanor started asking around.

BEARDSLEY: You know, and I would go into some neighborhoods where a lot of Muslims lived. And I talked to them? And they would say yes, yes, of course. We've all thought of this.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: I called up a young woman...

MARIAM TOURE: (Speaking French) Mariam Toure (ph).

BEARDSLEY: ...Mariam Toure (ph). She's 35 years old, French of Ivory Coast descent. She does wear the veil.

WARNER: So she wears the veil, the hijab, not the niqab, the face covering.

BEARDSLEY: Yeah, she wears the veil. Greg, nobody wears the niqab because the niqab is illegal.

WARNER: But even wearing the veil in public, before the coronavirus, Mariam would get what she thought were dirty looks and a lot of rude questions.

BEARDSLEY: So I asked her, you know, how did it feel to go out now where everyone is covering up? And she said it actually made it easier. She was talking with her mother about this, yeah. And they were laughing about it, saying that everyone is wearing, you know, the face veil now.

TOURE: (Speaking French).

WARNER: And people are treating her differently or...

BEARDSLEY: Yeah. She said, you know...

TOURE: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "Women who wear the hijab in the street are seen in a less severe light."

TOURE: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "The sickness and death have put everyone on the same page." She says, "We're all the same now." And a few months ago, people were insulting these women.

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WARNER: We talked to one woman who wears the niqab who does not live in France. And she said, only half joking, maybe now is the time to plan her French vacation. Once the airlines open, she'd just take off the niqab, pop on the face mask. But this hope that some women have of finally blending in - or at least in the short term not having to explain why they cover their faces - it has led to a deeper, longer-term hope that this might actually change something.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: You guys have all got to be quiet because you're on loudspeaker so I can, like, look at my phone.

WARNER: Diaa Hadid, NPR correspondent in Pakistan, is herself from a traditional Muslim family in Australia. She read Eleanor and a tweet forwarded by her sister.

HADID: OK. First guy says - and his twitter handle is @talkmaster. And he says, you think COVID-19 is bad? Give me a break. Wait till Muslims hit critical mass in America. You'll look back on these times fondly.

And then there seems to be a response by a young woman whose Twitter handle shows her wearing a hijab, and she's called @JMBooyah. And she's writes, sweetie, everyone's already washing their hands five times a day, covering their face, not shaking hands and avoiding bars. Not only are we already here, you're all Muslim. Salam, brother.

WARNER: (Laughter) So what do you think that joke was about?

HADID: I think it was this sense of, like, we're both doing the same thing, but we're doing them for such profoundly different reasons and that we don't really make a correlation between them. But for the minority - like for a minority - like, for Muslims, especially Muslims in the West, of course they see the correlation because so much of what they were vilified for is now being done by other people without any consequence.

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HADID: Like in Australia - like, my mother wears a hijab. My sisters wear the hijab. Just about everyone in my family except me wears one. And it's hard. Like, I've stood in lines with my sister who doesn't look like me at all, and I'll see people glaring at her.

BEARDSLEY: Yeah.

HADID: And they don't know that she's a nurse and that she saves people's lives. That doesn't figure into, like, their thinking when they're giving her a death stare.

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HADID: You know, I've spent my whole life, you know, interviewing and talking and bonding with women who wear niqabs. And I can strike up whole conversations, and I can walk into a room of niqabi women and tell them apart pretty quickly.

WARNER: That argument made by French intellectuals that you need to show your face to be part of a democratic society, Diaa does not buy it.

HADID: What was all that for? (Laughter) Turns out you can cover your face (laughter).

WARNER: To Diaa, it felt like some stressful piece of the culture war that didn't even affect her directly had been so casually set aside in this global emergency.

HADID: It did feel like a fuss over nothing.

WARNER: One night, Diaa confessed to her husband how good it felt.

HADID: And actually, he got really angry and really, like, emotional. Like, his face just changed 'cause he's quite a staunch atheist.

BEARDSLEY: Is he French, your husband?

HADID: No, he's Australian. But his mother was born in Scotland, and his father was raised in London. And he's very Anglo Saxon, down to his love of soggy vegetables.

BEARDSLEY: I don't know why I thought he was French.

HADID: (Laughter) 'Cause his name is Emmanuel (ph).

WARNER: Longtime listeners to this podcast will know that Diaa's husband, Emmanuel, is also a fan of Jane Austen novels and a strident feminist.

HADID: And he was like, you know, how could you even compare the two? Like, how could you even compare a woman erasing herself, you know, behind a sheet and a public health response? And yeah - and we talked about it, like, maybe for a good hour or two.

WARNER: But he was adamant.

HADID: And he was like, no, a mask is a public health good. Like, I feel reassured when I see people in masks. I don't feel reassured when I see a woman in a niqab. It's a completely different thing - one woman is erasing her identity; the other one is keeping somebody safe.

WARNER: Where do you think your husband's anger came from?

HADID: I think it was this sense of, like - that somehow I was using face masks to justify women wearing niqabs. He was really shocked that I'd even see a correlation.

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WARNER: Eleanor says the French press has also acted shocked. After first ignoring the correlation, they are now, just in the past few weeks, expressing outrage that anyone would make this connection.

BEARDSLEY: Yes, absolutely. How dare you use something that we're all doing to keep our health, to save our lives - how can you equate the two? They're completely unrelated.

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WARNER: A number of French people we talked to were offended we were even doing this story. They said the story behind the niqab and the story behind the face mask were so different, it was opportunistic to compare the two. Never mind that some French Muslims had actually pointed out this connection, this moment of surface sameness only highlighted the differences. Even Manal Shehab, the Australian woman who wore the niqab for 21 years, she agreed there is no connection here.

SHEHAB: I don't look at a comparison. There is no comparison for me to be able to do something freely and by choice because I'm connecting it to something positive, something beautiful.

WARNER: Which, in her mind, wearing the niqab is this affirming thing. She feels good when she sees a woman wearing it, whereas face masks, that's something people are compelled to wear.

SHEHAB: It saddens me to see people having to wear masks.

WARNER: It makes me sad, too, sometimes. But the other weekend, I was at a park in New York state, where I live. And I saw all these people trying to make it work. There were kids with superhero masks and some high-tech running masks and some people in bandanas, even a mask with leopard print.

SHEHAB: Then ironically, where the niqab was banned, I recently saw an article that in France, that they've come up with amazing designs for face masks that look like niqabs, actually - right? - like flowing things on the hair and the mouth, you know, rather than just the mouth itself.

WARNER: Talking to Manal, I started to imagine this summer in Paris - women starting to wear these designer masks that strangely look more like scarves but, then again, also like niqabs. And at least visually, the line between these very different coverings for very different purposes, different histories might begin to blur.

BEARDSLEY: I think that this totally is going to change what people think about covering your face. That whole thing that grew out of the veil - the niqab debate that became the stigma against covering your head and face - I think that's definitely going to be changed by this in France.

WARNER: Diaa was not so sure.

HADID: I don't know. I don't mean to sound like a cynic, but I just think, like, the way people see women wearing niqabs is so philosophically different that I don't know if there's any possibility of empathy.

BEARDSLEY: Obviously, they're going to have to take that poster down that the republic lives with its face uncovered because that would be very dangerous.

HADID: Well, maybe they'll just add - except through pandemics.

WARNER: (Laughter) An exception, a little asterisk.

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WARNER: That's it for today's episode. And before you go, a question for you - in these days of enforced isolation, how have you decided who to let into your physical space, into your bubble? Have you had to choose between friends or between family? And how did you do that? You can tell us your story, and here's some ways to do it. You can send us a voice memo by email at roughtranslation@npr.org. Or you can just leave us a voicemail at this number. It's 202-573-7513. That's, again, 202-573-7513. Tell us how you made or are making that decision.

Today's show was produced by Tina Antolini with Autumn Barnes. Our editor is Lu Olkowski. Special thanks to Sana Krosikov, Julia Scott, Tim Lyman, Alden Smith, Nick Otto, Maude Bass-Kreuger, Robert Krulwich and Malaka Gharib. The TikTok video at the top of the show is by Otis Ngoi, whose handle is @otiisandjoy. I also want to credit the reporting of James McAuley at The Washington Post who wrote about this topic. We'll have links to both in our show notes.

The ROUGH TRANSLATION executive team is Neal Carruth, Chris Turpin and Anya Grundmann. Didi Schanche is NPR's chief international editor. Our intern is Derek Arthur, mastering by Isaac Rodrigues. John Ellis composed music for our show, other scoring from Blue Dot Sessions. And we have original artwork from Halisia Hubbard. If you'd like more stories like this in your podcast feed, you can give us a rating or review on Apple Podcasts, and of course, tell somebody about the show. Drop us your thoughts, your stories at roughtranslation@npr.org. We're on Twitter @roughly. I'm Gregory Warner, back in two weeks with more ROUGH TRANSLATION.

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