Masking Prejudice

This Halloween a woman was sexually assaulted by a group of teenagers in Halloween masks. In a horrendous grotesque of cheap American horror movies she was pushed to the ground and intimately attacked before she managed to fight back and escape from the perpetrators. The media has reacted sensitively to the trauma that the woman has suffered from the ordeal and the police and other services are supporting her as best they can. However in the discussion of the attackers, as far as I have heard so far there has been no comment upon another glaring aspect of this particular case: the fact that the attackers were wearing masks.

Sure, there has been passing comment in a police statement about how the masks must have made the inherently traumatic ordeal several notches more terrifying for the victim, but nothing has been said about how the masks impact on the traceability of the perptrators. Perhaps this is thought to be too obvious. Perhaps the authorities feel that, with our extensively developed technologies of fingerprinting, DNA and our extensive network of public CCTV coverage, the simple wearing of a scream mask does not in any way preclude the potential to track down and bring these teenagers to justice.

I do find it strange that out of this there has not even been a moment of debate about whether they should legitimately have been wearing masks at all that night. I am at the same time not surprised at all that there hasn’t been, because wearing masks at Halloween is thoroughly familiar and accepted. Nobody would even think to suggest that wearing of those masks was in some way potentially pernicious or illegitimate in itself, before the teenagers started upon their illegal behaviour. Of course not. It was Halloween. Everybody was wearing masks… and we shouldn’t be all made to take our Halloween masks off and never put them on again just because some people in Halloween masks commit rape, sexual assault, and (quite broadly across this country and America) stage shopliftings and other illegal and violent heists when wearing Halloween masks. To even begin to think about suggesting banning such a thing just because of the wayward few would be deemed completely absurd, and it would never get anywhere.

After all, Halloween is part of our culture. It is innocent fun. Yes, the masks are sometimes scary, and they upset some people – especially old people. But those people are missing the point completely or just overreacting. The vast majority of kids who wear Halloween masks are just having a bit of fun. They’re good kids with good intentions, and they’re revelling in an aspect of our popular festive culture…

 

Covering your face is banned in most public places in the Netherlands. And there are lobbies for it to be banned by law legally all over the Western world. Covering your face in public is threatening and shouldn’t be allowed, say lobbyists, and a large percentage of the general public. People are very vociferous about it. They get very upset. Extensive radio reportage, public debates and reams and reams of newspaper articles have been dedicated to this matter over recent decades, in this country too. The images accompanying such debates however have been of grown women. Muslim women wearing the veil.

Due to technicalities in international human rights laws anybody wanting to ban the veil has to deny (or conceal) any direct prejudice against Islam by posing the issue as a question of security. Those who urge for the banning of veiling in public consistently cite discomfort, anxiety, a sense of rejection or hostility provoked by the barrier between their face and the face of another. When laws are passed, they cannot be framed in a way that clearly and directly discriminates against Islam (for aforementioned legal technical reasons). When the veil is banned, it is banned indirectly, by laws using terms such as “face coverings”.

Halloween masks also cause members of the public discomfort, anxiety, and a wariness of hostility from the other that is often far more legitimate than any that is affected by encountering a veiled Muslim woman on the street. The number of cases of robberies, assaults, and instances of intentionally frightening and threatening the general public perpetrated by costumed, masked youths in the name of Halloween is beyond enormous. Why then don’t we hear all trick-or-treaters being condemned and being met with lawsuits from those who accuse them of disrupting the unity of social life?

The answer I suggest is because trick-or-treaters are “our own”. It is “our” culture, “our” festival. We know it’s all really a bit of harmless fun. We know that the ones who commit crimes are simply bad eggs, or at best misguided. We know that their criminality is nothing to do with the fact that they covered their face, and that all the little minds behind Halloween masks are not robbers and rapists in the making. But where is this sensible logic when it comes to the year-round issue of the Burqa, which is much more than a one-day-a-year frivolous cultural choice?

The understanding and passive acceptance of Halloween masks does not come into the same category as debates around the veil because the latter are not really about people covering their faces in public – they are about Islam. To some extent, they are also about racial and gendered power dynamics. Overall, what they are really about is visible ‘otherness’ and the mainstream society’s own anxieties. In fact in the countries where veils are banned it is often around or less than 1% of the whole population who wear such coverings as are banned. The issue is deeply complex, and there is plenty more to be said about it. For example, nobody ever complains about Christian nuns in their wimples and habits, although many of those get-ups look remarkably like hijabs and jilbabs to me. What seems quite plain, though, is that the framing of laws affecting the wearing of the veil in terms of security and “face-coverings” is nothing more than a techno-legal mask for the real issues: ignorance at best, and at worst Islamophobia. If we admit that, though, we find ourselves in a situation that creates far more discomfort than the sight of a woman in a niqab.

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