Obscured facial cues are not the biggest problem for Black people and other minorities wearing masks in today’s United States

The mass adoption of face masks has prompted an increase in deliberations on challenges in interpersonal communication, in particular non-verbal communication, in the public. Commentators observe that people may feel uneasy when they cannot read the facial cues of their interlocutors, and that it is more difficult to convey empathy while wearing a mask. But for ethnic and religious minorities, facial expressions obscured by masks are the least of their worries. Masks don’t conceal the very significant non-verbal cues –  most of all, race, and other markers of ethnic/religious difference such as clothing. 

It has been widely recognized that for white people, the act of putting on a mask has not made them fear for their life and safety, unlike African American folks who experience police and white supremacist violence on a daily basis, and for whom covering their faces aggravates the already high risk of arrests and murder.  They do not have to be concerned that passers-by will accuse them of spreading disease because they are masked, which has been the experience of many Asian Americans who now resort to wearing sunglasses with their masks in order to conceal their facial features. In New York, Hasidic Jews are also harassed and blamed for the pandemic. In Pennsylvania, people are blaming Latinos. Wearing a mask, a simple public health precaution for white people, may pose a deadly risk to ethnic and religious minorities. 

People of color’s experiences of racist violence triggered by mask-wearing bring into sharper focus daily struggles of Muslim women who wear the Islamic face veil, also known as the niqab, in the West. The niqab has recently gained a higher profile as commentators pointed out the hypocrisy of governments which have banned it, but are currently enforcing mask wearing.

Trying to understand the reasons for voluntary face covering among Muslim women, I have interviewed 19 niqab-wearing women in the United States and 21 in the UK (I share the findings in my forthcoming book, Wearing the Niqab: Muslim Women in the UK and the US). I. Sifting through the interview data to learn about communication experiences of niqabi women, I noticed that the respondents did not dwell much on interactive events such as smiles – instead, they focused on how they try to send more unambiguous positive messages. They start conversations and offer help. A smile from behind a mask (or a niqab) can be recognized by others, but it’s a subtle signal – perhaps too subtle. The other person needs to really engage in order to notice a smile, and women who wear the niqab cannot always count on that. 

Socially, the odds are stacked against them, as they need to mitigate negative perceptions of Muslim covered women being oppressed, or alternatively, presenting a security threat. They cannot afford going about their business without constantly risk-assessing and actively mitigating the risk of harassment. Many talked a lot about “making special effort”, and “going the extra mile” in their interactions in public spaces. For example, Soraya said that she was “extra chatty” and often complimented other women’s purses. Nabila told me that she often picked up food items off the floor at the grocery store in an effort to appear nonthreatening and helpful, for which she was thanked by the employees.

Sadiqa, an African American niqab-wearing woman I interviewed, told me that although she regularly experienced simultaneous anti-Muslim and anti-Black prejudice, she and her friends didn’t really consider taking the niqab off: “even if we were to take off the niqab, we’re still Black. Like, we’re still, you know, African Americans, we still have dark skin complexion. So even if people weren’t judging us on this [the niqab] they could be judging us on our skin color …we’re going to get something from somewhere, you know. It’s already been something very ingrained in us, not just as Muslim but as African Americans.”

Even though “we’re all niqabis now”, as one of commentators wrote, most people will be happy to leave the masks behind when the pandemic subsides. Muslim women (in particular African American Muslim women) who wear the niqab will likely continue to face intersecting prejudice. And while non-verbal communication is currently often discussed in terms of facial expressions (and how masks obscure them), skin color is an important non-verbal cue that no mask can conceal. Given the racial politics in the United States, it is probably the most significant non-verbal cue of all. 


Questions for the Ramadan 2020 survey

How are you coping with the physical isolation from the community?
How may you be using the Internet to enhance your experience of Ramadan this year?
Are you focused more on any particular aspect of Ramadan (prayer, study, spending time with family)?
Are your family dynamics different?
What are the new aspects of your spirituality that you may be discovering?
Is your daily/nightly rhythm different to previous Ramadans?
Does the lockdown during Ramadan change they way you work? (in paid/unpaid contexts)
How is the lockdown affecting your self-care practices?

Wearing the Niqab: Fashioning Identity Among Muslim Women Who Wear the Face Veil

niqab_coverIn the last five years, I have interviewed 25 women who choose to wear the niqab on both sides of the Atlantic.  In my search for women willing to share their experiences I have visited mosques, Islamic schools, prayer groups, women’s gyms, halal restaurants, and university campuses. I have also interviewed women via Skype. They came from all walks of life and while they were all positive about the niqab itself, their experience of wearing the niqab ranged from entirely positive to one fraught with anxiety about reactions of others. Their narratives had one thing in common: they connected their love for God with practising modesty and emulating wives of the Prophet Muhammad. Hence, the choice to wear the niqab was a result of a reflection on how to best achieve the highest level of piety. The niqab itself also engendered piety and a sense of a transcendent experience.

These findings indicate that niqab is misunderstood by most people in the West who may encounter niqab-wearers directly or via the media. The data collected for this book suggests that rather than being a political protest or a practice of entirely separating oneself from society, it is foremost a religious practice of modesty/piety as well as a critique of gender relations in Western societies, both in Muslim and non-Muslim populations.

Even close allies of niqabis seem to misread what it represents, adding more confusion to the fact that it is already intentionally misinterpreted by its detractors. This is why it is so important to closely listen to niqabi women’s voices. This book is an analysis of their narratives addressing the practice of wearing the niqab. Here, I deal with several of  misinterpretations of the niqab, frame them with existing literature and media material, and juxtapose them with narratives of women who wear the niqab in the West. Through this, I illuminate glaring discontinuities in the hegemonic discourse about the niqab that shape current policy and practice affecting niqab-wearers in the West.

It is important to point out that the research context includes two Anglophone Western countries: the UK and the US. The findings cannot be transplanted to other contexts, especially non-Western ones. The understanding of the context is fundamental to comprehend West-based niqab wearers’ perspectives, as the next chapters will show. I do not, therefore, aim to generalise my findings to Saudi Arabia (where the niqab is culturally imposed, at least in conservative areas such as Riyadh), or other Gulf countries. I do not even claim that the findings are generalizable to the entire population of niqab-wearers living in the West; I merely point out that the conclusions I offer, based on in-depth interview data, challenge the consistently negative, hostile and one-dimensional opinions about the niqab that permeate the public sphere in the West. The data illustrates the ethnic, class, linguistic and other diversities represented by women who wear the niqab.

The book is organised into four main chapters, with each chapter examining narratives related to a particular misconception about the niqab.

The Saudi Arabian framing of the niqab, and the Salafi doctrine make up a notion that is misused in order to promote the first misinterpretation of the niqab in the West that I address: The niqab is misread as necessarily conservative and/or doctrinal, but in my study, women’s justification for it is neither. As far as its religious, (by far the most emphasised) aspect emerging from participants’ narratives the adoption of the niqab appears to stem from spiritual religious experiences such as the Hajj or Umrah pilgrimage, or an inspirational moment/realisation/encounter. The second misconception dealt with here is that the niqab is a fixed accessory of patriarchy. Niqabi women are resented and harassed for their dress which is often discursively constructed a tool of their oppression; it is seen as something that patriarchal relatives “made them wear”. The data I collected, or the extant literature, does not evidence this. It does, however identify sexual oppression in the web of dynamics that envelops the niqab but in a different form – that of on-street sexual harassment. This experience is often intertwined with the experience of on-street Islamophobic abuse. These two forms of oppression are managed dynamically in different spaces, using a range of coping strategies that I discuss. The third misconception is related to the perception that the niqab is unequivocally supposed to separate its wearer from the world. Not only do I demonstrate that the participants are deeply engaged in the community and public life, but I show that they consider wearing the niqab to be a practice that enables them to be active members of their communities. The fourth misconception, underpinning the first three, is that the niqab is seen as foreign, anti-West, and other. I show in my discussion that this view is a yet another iteration of the colonialist, Orientalist way of perceiving the world. The West makes a claim to be more tolerant and “civilised” by virtue of being more open to difference – but the case of the niqab demonstrates that this self-congratulatory view is misguided. The niqab represents otherness that is not tolerated in the West because it constitutes a necessary counterpoint to the West’s high notion of its virtues. It is constructed as a benchmark against which the West may be compared to the Orient, and inevitably emerge victorious. Yet, as I demonstrate in this book, the argument for the West’s cultural superiority and niqab’s inferiority rings hollow when we consider how women interviewed for this project challenge recriminations against the niqab at various levels: sociological, theological, political, and cultural. In addition to giving religious justifications, women deftly mobilise the language of rights and freedoms that stems from the premises of liberalism to argue for their right to choose their attire, thus demonstrating their ability to interweave Islamic theological arguments with the Enlightenment framework of Western liberalism.

Wearing the Niqab: Fashioning Identity Among Muslim Women Who Wear the Face Veil

Anna Piela

Publisher: Bloomsbury Academic, London (forthcoming)

Note: I have completed the work on the manuscript which is now awaiting publication. Please leave comments in the form below.

#metoo is finally shaking up academia – a view from Islamic studies

Note: a shorter version of this article has appeared in Times Higher Education (Issue 20/2018).

academia, harassment, #metoo, #timesupacademia, celebrity, role model, syllabus

At the end of 2017, #metoo was seemingly transforming our public sphere. Sexual harassment in show-business was finally being called out, and survivors came forward with their experiences of abuse by household names like Harvey Weinstein, Louis CK and Kevin Spacey. TV networks, streaming services, and sponsors were cutting ties with them in panic, even if just to protect their revenue. And all this without a single conviction (yet).  This was somewhat surprising, given the previous year’s election to the highest political office in the USA of a man accused of sexual misconduct by no fewer than 20 women. In Europe, power-wielding men used to get off the hook easily as well, as the case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former head of the International Monetary Fund, illustrates. But perhaps, then, things have started to finally change.

Of course, show-business and politics are not the only industries where sexual misconduct happens, they just tend to be more in the public eye. As #metoo (and #balancetonporc – ‘expose your pig’ – in France) was growing and more ordinary women were sharing their experiences of harassment on social media, allegations started surfacing in academia, too. A constantly-growing spreadsheet, started in December 2017 by Karen Kelski, a former US professor and now the owner of a career advice consultancy The Professor Is In, contains 2400 entries that document harassment in academia. All entries are anonymous, though, and so it certainly does not have the media appeal and immediacy of the Weinstein affair.

I was all the more shocked to hear about the allegations of rape levied by Henda Ayari and another anonymous woman at Tariq Ramadan who has now been charged and held by police in Paris. After all, Tariq Ramadan was a superstar of Islamic Studies who wrote extensively about sexual ethics in his quest for a moderate Islam. My reaction also had a personal dimension: Tariq Ramadan was the external examiner of my PhD. But as a feminist, I have been taught to listen to other women’s voices and respect them. This dilemma has further implications for me as a feminist teacher as well, because I teach Islamic Studies now, too. What crossed my mind immediately after hearing about the allegations was – should I keep Tariq Ramadan’s books on my reading lists? Leaving them in could be construed as indifference to women he allegedly raped, removing them could be interpreted as censorship and mixing up academic arguments with the persona of their author. Should we be what we preach? Where is the line, which, when crossed, makes us unredeemable professionally? Are these standards robust across all groups, if so? Should we strive to only use work by scholars who qualify as role models and who can bestow this title anyway? In show-business, the response to the Weinstein and other scandals was clear – the professional links with the accused men were quickly severed. But can and should such a renowned thinker like Tariq Ramadan be ostracised?

A few of the academics I asked for comments think so. Doris H. Gray, Associate Director of the Hillary Rodham Clinton Center for Women’s Empowerment at the Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morroco, says that she has removed Tariq Ramadan’s texts and videos of his talks from her course ‘Gender and Islam’. She says that his role as a thinker writing on ethics, and in particular female modesty, is incompatible with his personal lifestyle. Even if the rape charges are not proven, she says that his grooming of female admirers disqualifies him as a scholar of ethics.

Randi Deguilhem, Director of Research at the French National Centre for Scientific Research thinks not. ‘To ignore his work would be to ignore a strong force within the field of contemporary Islamic thought and the reverberations of his work’, she says. ‘I would not ignore his work, especially if I was teaching on Islamic thought in France among French Muslims.’ However, not everyone agrees that Ramadan’s writings are indeed central to Islamic studies. Kecia Ali, professor of religion at Boston University, says she doesn’t use his books in her teaching. ‘He has persistently failed to engage women’s scholarship while superficially proclaiming women’s importance to Muslim reform. Even if one were to set aside the credible accusations against him, I think there are many other rigorous works by contemporary Muslim thinkers of all genders to assign’.

What about the relationship between personal conduct and the reception of one’s academic work more generally, then? ‘It seems to me that there is a case to be made for credible scholarship even where we have evidence of flawed character’, muses Maria Jaschok, Director of the International Gender Studies Centre (IGS) at the University of Oxford. ‘It is the challenge then for the scholar who engages with a given text to provide necessary scrutiny of a kind that makes transparent the position taken by the critic’. In that sense, it is a thoroughly feminist piece of advice – we should critically examine our own moral values when engaging with and reacting to such a text.

To some, this case is almost as if Islam itself was put on trial. There are allegations of violation of due process, as pre-trial custody is a measure of last resort. A crucial piece of evidence supporting Ramadan’s alibi was conveniently ‘lost’ leading to incarceration and solitary confinement even before the trial started. It appears that the case is highly politicised, especially that Ramadan is the only one of many individuals with similar charges (including two current French cabinet ministers) who is treated so harshly by the French justice system. And will Tariq Ramadan be still deemed as a symbol of reformist Islam in the West if he is found guilty? Ramadan once famously called on Muslims to ‘reform their minds’, but now this advice seems somewhat awkward. Katarzyna Górak-Sosnowska, professor of religious studies at SGH Warsaw School of Economics who is currently involved in an educational outreach programme in Polish secondary schools talking about Islam in Europe, agrees. ‘The whole thing is jarring’, she says. ‘I have talked to students about Tariq Ramadan as an advocate of moderate Islam and Muslim integration, because he’s central to this movement, but when I say that he was recently arrested on rape charges, it is then difficult to challenge the stereotype of a sexually unrestrained Muslim male that is peddled in Polish right-wing media’. According to Górak-Sosnowska, this may be the most problematic consequence of the ‘Ramadan affair’ for scholars teaching about Islam and Muslims. While we understand the differences between scriptural Islamic sexual ethics and lived Islam, they don’t matter to Islamophobes for whom this case will be a perfect stick to beat Muslims with. And because the classroom is often the place where students are able to confront stereotypes and media narratives with scholarly knowledge, unfortunately, it may now be that little bit harder to address them there.

I can’t help but think that Tariq Ramadan’s case is very particular. He is much more than a scholar of Islamic studies – he has tons of popular appeal among many European Muslims, especially in France, who are often described as his ‘following’ (the letter in his support currently circulating online has 27 000 signatures). He is the grandson of Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the controversial Muslim Brotherhood. Despite this notorious familial link, Ramadan has reinvented himself as a symbol of European moderate Islam, and not only has he rubbed shoulders with the great and the good; it is people’s claim to fame that they rubbed shoulders with him. He was banned from the United States which prevented him from taking up a post of Professor of Islamic Studies there, but the University of Oxford immediately stepped in and snatched him up. He heads the Islamic Institute for Ethical Training in France. He has advised successive British governments on Islam and society. Few academics of today can boast such impact outside academia, except perhaps Stephen Hawking. Tariq Ramadan is himself a REF impact case study.

Ramadan is not a cleric, but the fact that he prolifically writes about Islamic ethics invites such associations. Many of his talks wouldn’t be out of place at a Friday Jummah prayer at a mosque when sermons are usually preached. That’s why there are probably more parallels between this case and allegations of sex abuse against high-level Catholic Church officials – because of the compromised moral authority, not scholarly achievements. Globally, in many cases of proven and even alleged rape, scholars are stripped of their titles and dismissed from academic posts.

So back to my original question: should we use the work of morally compromised scholars in our own work? After all, writings don’t cease to exist if their author is found guilty of crime. Neither does the writings’ intellectual influence. I have thought about this long and hard, and decided that if Tariq Ramadan is found guilty of rape, I won’t pass his work over in silence, but will use it as part of a case study that will provide ample sociological context to his famous books.

Perhaps we should take a closer look at the writers whose work we choose to discuss? Just as postcolonial studies has exposed the bias in the work of ‘dead white men’, we should carry on with this scrutiny of the scholars we use in the classroom. Then we should examine where we, as teachers, stand. And, perhaps, the question asked in this scrutiny of the scholars we use in the classroom. Then we should examine where we, as teachers, stand. And, perhaps, the question asked in this article is a good topic for an ethics class debate. That way it can be a lesson to all of us.


My General Election 2017 vote as a dual Polish-British citizen naturalised in 2016

Anna Piela


(Images and email screenshots at the bottom of the post)

I was refused a ballot in the General Election today.

I am a dual Polish-UK citizen living in Leeds, registered to vote in this election. I was naturalised in June 2016, just after the Brexit vote. I have lived in Yorkshire since 2005, when I arrived to study for a PhD in Women’s Studies at the University of York. Currently I am a university lecturer in Leeds. As a feminist, immigrant, concerned environmentalist, academic, and a very persistent individual I feel really strongly about my voting rights so I was looking forward with excitement to my first General Election vote this June.

I never received my polling card so I emailed the Electoral Commission in Leeds some time ago to make sure that I can vote. ‘You don’t need a polling card’, their response was. ‘You are registered to vote’. So this afternoon I skipped off to my local polling station at Temple Newsam Primary (East Leeds), and I grabbed my UK passport just in case. Little did I know that I was about to run into trouble immediately. I approached the table, gave my address, and was then told that I was ‘Category G’ (funny, I felt more like ‘Category B’ at that point), meaning I was ineligible to vote in this election as a Polish citizen. I felt everybody’s eyes on me. Do they think I am a fraud? I started to feel hot and embarassed.

Well, I am a dual citizen, so I said there must be an error somewhere, and the nice lady at the station gave me a phone number for the Leeds Electoral commission. Called them immediately. No response. Called them again. Again, an answering machine OK, says the nice lady, here’s another number to call. After punching through an extensive menu, I got put through to a clerk. He didn’t know anything and couldn’t help. After spelling out my name and the name of the clerk who had confirmed my registration by email earlier, I was told to wait for them to call me back. OK, says the nice lady at the station. I’ll call another number this time. She got put through and was told that I was ineligible to vote as a Polish citizen. Well, wasn’t I glad to whip out my British passport and wave it in her face. And then whoever was at the end of the line started crumbling. Oh, it’s a clerical error they say. She is indeed a UK citizen. So what do I do? asked the nice lady. ‘Give her a ballot and mark a clerical error in your register’ they said.

So that was that. They said at the station that there had been four other people who were refused the ballot there despite being apparently naturalised and registered, but they didn’t persevere like I did, and walked away.

I voted, smiled, and left. With a very high blood pressure rate, for sure. Well, that’s how elections are won and lost, and citizens categorised as A or B (yes, those of us who may be a G). Clerical errors are easy to explain away, too.

Update: I did hear back from the commission 3.5 hours after my call. At first they tried to maintain that I hadn’t informed them that I’d been naturalised, and then when I said clearly that I had, on the yearly update form that I received in 2016, they checked – and voila! They had the information, but whoever was updating their system, didn’t bother to put this in. As for the person who replied to my email query in May, he didn’t bother to check if I was registered in the system FOR THE ELECTION IN THE NEXT 9 DAYS. He only looked if I was registered (and I had been, as a EU citizen I had always voted in local and European elections). So two people made a ‘clerical error’. The data inputter and that man. Wait, where is the link for complaints about the Electoral Commission…https://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/complaints


Caption: the polling station where I voted, eventually