To mask is to conceal something from view, we understand easily enough. Can masking be separate from the act of disguising or hiding. Are there forms of concealment that are neither of the latter two meanings we could attach to the named action, to mask? More questions will ensue. Questions about whether to mask is to protect; we know that we have in use a connotation for the verb to cover that entails protection. I see a neighbor cover his motorcycle from time to time; he is attempting to protect it from the elements as the cycle stands outside in front of his home.
A mask is a thing, not an action. It is something that covers all or part of the face. Masks have been worn in religious rituals; masks are worn at Halloween; masks are worn as part of a costume at masquerades; masks are worn at Mardi Gras or Carnival. Masks are also worn by criminals. Masks cover the face, hide the face from view, remove it from recognition; their intention is to give a different appearance to the public gaze, to perhaps, although not by necessity, to conceal one’s true intentions or feelings, for there is no culture on earth, in history, that has not associated the face with what one feels or is feeling or intends towards another. A mask removes the wearer from some recognition of his or her person, which we have by custom and culture associated with the face, although the eyes may present personhood, there are expressions of face that are accepted parts of personality and mood that masks hide. masks are worn b y catchers in baseball, all players in American football, and by goaltenders in ice hockey; these are masks of protection. We know of the use of masks in rituals and in forms of drama, in Ancient Greek and Roman drama, as well as in KaBuKi.
Wearing masks cannot be removed from all of these at once and which of these can be separated from the others entirely is not something I believe is possible, so if one wears a mask of any kind at any time, he or she is engaging in an act of concealment, an attempt to hide or protect, and unless there is a pre-negotiated context for wearing the mask, yes a socially negotiated context for wearing one, the act is one of hiding and disguising which is in itself asocial at least, antisocial at worst. Sociopathic it might be. We shall see.
A Muslim woman who wears the niqab as a way to let others know she is unavailable is in effect a context that could be understood outside Muslim society/ies, and especially so in non-Muslim societies. Muslim women, though, must understand that in civil contexts where a face must be put to a name for the purposes of official communication and identification, the niqab must be removed. I know as a western man, that if a woman is wearing a niqab, even if I do not know why, she appears unaporachable by all the negotiations of social contact and interaction that I understand. This is what some married Muslim women wear to signal their unavailability which is more overt than a wedding ring.
A Muslim woman cannot take and ID photo with a niqab on; that would be more than absurd. I even think that the shawls or head coverings should not be worn in ID photos and that there might be a need to remove head coverings for the purposes of identification because I am sure that hair color and hair length and hair style and the face outside of head covering goes further in positively identifying someone. But what if a western woman has a different hair cut from her ID photo? I’ve experienced this with my wife at Kennedy. Never mind what happened. Suffice it to say that there were questions about her identity that were eventually resolved without much ado.
I still have the initial sense of being put off by the niqab. I do not avoid thinking that there is no tangible necessity for it. I know that if I wore a mask, the police would stop me, perhaps even arrest me. The feigned naivete concerning the responses from non-Muslims about Muslim women wearing the niqab in western societies that many Muslims present seems often disingenuous. I don’t think they want inclusion, and the niqab says that loud and clear. In this way I believe it is an impediment to pluralism even. There is no desire for a multicultural society from someone who wears it. It speaks loud and clear that “I don’t want any part of your culture or your civilization and don’t approach me because I don’t want any part of you or yours.” But then what should we say about tatooing or body piercing or transvestites. Is it more acceptable for a man to dress as a woman as long as he does not cover his face . . . but he is covering his face if he is making himself up to appear as a woman might appear to others looking at him/her, appearing in a way that we have accepted as womanly? What is make-up but a fictionalized face. Is wearing eyeliner and heavy compact and lips stick not wearing a mask or a veil, in as much as make-up veils and does not mask?
Easy solutions? Never. Pluralism and democracy are on-going dialogues.