At thirty-two, after decades of sporting a headscarf, I abandoned the practice and exposed my bad hair days. There was a short-lived, still humongous, stir. At home, there was one overriding fear: “And what will people say?”
I had long interpreted the headscarf as a politico-cultural expression of Islamic modesty; for years though, I never risked taking it off. The spectre of community disapproval deterred me, but then, so did the thought of selling out. That I could enact the archetype of Muslim woman unshackling her chains, could endorse the cardboard tropes, bothered me. When I finally stopped caring and took the plunge, my entire conception of reality shifted.
Four years on and my experience equips me with insight. A hijabi when headlines hyped the War on Terror, I already know that all are prey to mainstream conditioning; that IQ, educational, or professional qualifications are not automatic safeguards against ignorance. In my life as it unfolds post-headscarf, the comic sea-change in strangers’ attitudes towards me, I can vouch that opting out of norms incurs social penalties. I have witnessed polarities in treatment, know a hunger for acceptance, and appreciate anyone’s pressure to conform to the crowd.
By interrogating the headscarf as immutable religious law, I am reminded that beliefs and identities are products of historical, political, and cultural forces, configured by upbringing and environmental backdrop. I observe that too many of us outsource our critical faculties in blind deference to expert authorities, subscribing to the fallacy that appointed ‘philosopher-kings’ must comprehend something we can’t, that the structural asymmetry of information serves anything other than vested interests. Hence, if Imperial College London plots a graph about it, or a man in spectacles rattles off numbers, or a stack of death certificates signed by frontline heroes just says so, we’ll dig no deeper; we’ll admire the emperor’s new threads as he stands naked in plain sight.
So now as I stride into shops, into salons; down hospital corridors; onto Dublin’s public transport, my face unmasked, not even pretending to be sorry, the waves of hostility, the missiles of verbal abuse, are (stifle yawn) old headscarf to me.
I can hush attacks with official paperwork—I’ve secured a medical exemption. What’s troubling is the visceral nature of the onslaught. Where dishonouring the dead and the vulnerable enters the equation, I see how my behaviour signifies a disregard for the common good. The shock value speaks more to the success of the global fear campaign than to an informed understanding. I don’t blame anyone for adhering to public health guidance, but when inquiry into its validity is cast in tin foil hat terms, when scrutiny of the doublespeak and the doublethink provokes outrage, when repurposing masks as an instrument of control is the step too far; then even the most credulous need to wonder. When a conscientious refusal to play along counts for little more than petulance, an attention-seeking stunt at best, and those, masked up, cruising solo in their cars, represent virtue, then the time for reflection is long overdue.
The transition from denial to acceptance is a scary leap: shaking off the programming, rearranging beliefs, remodelling the systems on which we have staked our lives, our livelihoods, our selves, is a terrifying task. Or is it because the conspiracy realm is traditionally populated by weirdos that it’s easy to dismiss the evidence? That Bill Gates is up to nothing other than philanthropy is the comfort of faith. Klaus Schwab will spell out The Great Reset in a how-to guide, but the idea of a technocratic agenda still sounds like hogwash. PCR is not fit for purpose, but we accept the reported case numbers. An mRNA vaccine, rushed, and proudly ‘experimental’ may be a gamble, but we’ll roll up our sleeves, we’ll take a jab —make that two—for the team. Big Pharma, absolved of liability, is fattening that bottom line, but call it old -fashioned opportunism if you must, not an orchestrated end.
The Orwellian echoes lend an aura of irony to the occasion, more than mobilise action it seems; and so, is the question that nobody sees it, or really that they’d just rather not? A recent encounter gives me heart: Lolloping down a supermarket aisle, shoppers lunging out of my path, I near collided into a fellow unmasked objector. We shared a moment, grinning at one another; armed with the knowledge, that acquiescence, is always a choice.
|Editor’s Note: A report of the European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention: Using face masks in the community: first update – Effectiveness in reducing transmission of COVID-19 published in February 2021 concluded:
The evidence regarding the effectiveness of medical face masks for the prevention of COVID-19 in the community is compatible with a small to moderate protective effect, but there are still significant uncertainties about the size of this effect. Evidence for the effectiveness of non-medical face masks, face shields/visors and respirators in the community is scarce and of very low certainty.
Additional high-quality studies are needed to assess the relevance of the use of medical face masks in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Featured Image: Anna Shvets Photography