Don’t Uncover that Face! Covid-19 Masks and the Niqab: Ironic Transfigurations of the ECtHR’s Intercultural Blindness

International Journal for the Semiotics of Law - Revue Internationale de Sémiotique Juridique 35 (3):1119-1143 (2022)
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Abstract

This essay, between serious and facetious, addresses an apparently secondary implication of the planetary tragedy produced by Covid-19. It coincides with the ‘problem of the veil,’ a bone of contention in Islam/West relationships. More specifically, it will address the question of why the pandemic has changed the proxemics of public spaces and the grammar of ‘living together.’ For some time—and it is not possible to foresee how much—in many countries people cannot go out, or enter any public places, without wearing a sanitary mask. In short, almost all of us, by obligation or by urgent advice from the public authorities of the various countries, will not live the public sphere with our faces uncovered. The alteration of the social context affecting many Western countries will inevitably involve also the ‘local’ perception of the Islamic veil and—as a matter of equality—the consistency of the prohibition of wearing it. What will thus become of the ban on wearing it in public places established by some countries such as France and asseverated by the ECHR? If everyone can and will have to go around with their faces covered, why should only Islamic women be discriminated against? Will not the change in boundary conditions produced by Covid-19 also induce Western people to re-categorize the meaning of the veil? And will this re-categorization not directly affect the ‘fact’ of wearing the veil, that is, its empirical perception? And still, will this psycho-semantic change not show how empirical perceptions are cultural constructs rather than ‘objective facts,’ as such allegedly independent from the observer’s point of view? Consequentially, will the plurality of perceptions and cultural meanings related to the gesture of covering one’s own face not gain renewed relevance in determining the legitimacy of wearing the veil? The socio-semantic earthquake produced by Covid-19 compels us to rethink this and other issues orbiting around the translation of ‘facts’ into legal language; furthermore, it highlights the instrumentality of many ideological/partisan and ethnocentric assumptions passed off as objectivity regarding those alleged ‘facts.’ The essay will attempt to provide an answer to the above questions by proposing a semiotic-legal approach to intercultural conflicts and, indirectly, the pluralism in law.

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