Religious accessories bans are wrong: The right to your face

This series is about religious accessories bans, and technically a ban on facial coverings isn’t a religious accessories ban. Or is it? Spoiler alert: It usually is.

This is a very difficult idea to talk about because it’s so hard to pin down exactly what a general face-covering ban is about. So why is it so hard? It’s because general face-covering bans are always dishonest. Always, always. They are never just about their surface justifications. There is always a hidden agenda.

That should be obvious and uncontroversial to anyone who bothers to question a general face-covering ban. In reality, in our day-to-day lives, we’re not really concerned about face-coverings at all. Nobody panics or even considers there’s a threat nearby when they see someone wearing a scarf wrapped around their face on a cold day, or someone wearing a full-face helmet while riding a motorcycle. But those are face-coverings! And if there’s really such a danger posed by people covering their faces, why does that danger suddenly evaporate when someone wears a face-covering that we recognize as usually serving a legitimate purpose? Hell, taking advantage of a good reason to cover your face would be exactly what a real criminal would do, in order to not draw attention to themselves before they strike.

There are basically two flavours of hidden agenda where general face-covering bans are involved:

  • suppression of protest; or
  • harassing Muslims.

Suppression of protest is a big topic. Forms of face-covering bans specifically aimed at protest activities – like Canada’s Bill C-309 – are obviously about this motive, but general face-covering bans can also have an element of if. One of the most powerful tools that those without power have to keep those with power in check is anonymity. The powerful can’t hide easily, while the powerless can, and that’s very important. If those who hold the power can identify those who oppose them, they can target them and use their power to silence them. Governments in power would love to be able to track every citizen, and identify those who threaten their control. But even without assuming government malevolence, people could be targeted by their employers (for example) for taking part in legal protests.

However, as big and important an issue as that is, it’s not the topic of this series. So let’s put it aside and focus on the targeting of Muslims.

But first, let’s clarify what general face-covering bans are.

What are general face-covering bans?

A general face-covering ban is a general ban on wearing accessories in public that fully or partially cover one’s face, and make facial recognition and identification difficult or impossible.

What makes the ban “general” is that applies to everybody, everywhere. Or at least almost.

Exemptions to “everybody” usually include law enforcement or military officers performing some tactical duty. Exemptions are also grated when people have a legitimate health or safety justification – like a helmet while working or riding bikes, or a face mask while doing surgery or first response medical aid.

Exactly what “everywhere” means varies from proponent to proponent. Some advocate for banning face coverings literally everywhere in public. Others restrict that to only government-owned property – so streets and sidewalks, but you can walk around a store with your face covered (unless the store’s owners forbid it). Others restrict it even further to only where you are giving or receiving public services – so you can walk down the street with your face covered, but you can’t ride a bus.

That part of the definition is fairly clear and unambiguous, assuming you can pin down exactly what’s meant by “everywhere”. Where things get really hairy is when you ask what kinds of face-covering accessories should be banned.

Recall that the putative purpose of a face-covering ban is to make it easier to do facial recognition. That would imply that anything that impairs facial recognition should be banned, right? Well, just ask the Québec Liberal government how that worked out with their face-covering ban. Except, we can’t. Because the Liberal government got voted out of office, and their ban got struck down. Twice.

But we can still learn a lot from that fiasco. The Liberal face-covering ban is a paragon of two-faced legislation. The underlying purpose, obvious to everyone, was to stick it to Muslims. But the Liberals went all-out trying to cover that true purpose up. Ultimately, the bill, Bill 62, was complete garbagebut, viewed from a different perspective, the bill is a masterful example of paring down an attempt to harass Muslims via a face-covering ban to the bare minimum that might conceivably pass legal scrutiny. I mean, it failed – miserably and pathetically – but it was still a herculean attempt.

So given that the alleged justification for the bill was identification for security, what kinds of face-coverings did it ban? Well, at first, exactly what you’d expect if its justification were honest: it banned everything that impaired identification via facial recognition. Most famously, it banned wearing sunglasses while riding the bus.

I doubt it will surprise anyone, but banning sunglasses, hoodies, and scarves while riding buses triggered howls of outrage. The Québec Liberals ended up back-pedalling… oh, I’m sorry, “clarifying”… the restrictions down to effectively nothing. And then they got struck down anyway.

So exactly which face-coverings are face-covering bans supposed to apply to? Good question. Good luck getting a straight answer out of a ban supporter.

As near as it’s possible to pin down, it looks like these bans only cover two things:

  • absurd face-coverings that no-one really wears in practice – like walking down the street in a Halloween mask (other than on Halloween) or a fake beard; and
  • … shocking!… Islamic veils.

So that’s what general face-covering bans are: General face-covering bans are laws that ban full or partial face-coverings in public spaces. Proponents differ on which public spaces and which face-coverings the ban should apply to. However, they universally agree that Islamic veils should be banned.

The legitimacy caveat

There’s another complication that makes discussing face-covering bans challenging, and that is that sometimes they are legitimate. Sorta.

Every time face-covering bans are defended, they are defended by making arguments about security and public safety. “If people are allowed to cover their faces,” the argument goes, “then they will be able to commit crimes without being identified.”

When used as justification for a general face-covering ban, this argument is terrible, and it is wrong. I’ll explain why shortly.

However

… there are very specific, very limited cases where face-covering bans do make sense. Sorta.

There are basically three situations where banning face-coverings make sense:

Checkpoints

One of the cheapest and most effective forms of biometric ID is photo ID. That’s because humans are generally very good at facial recognition. If you have a secure ID card with a clear photo on it, that’s a pretty effective way to practically identify someone quickly, cheaply, and fairly reliably. It ain’t perfect, of course – twins can swap IDs, and hell, even I can pass for my brother and some of my cousins on their driver’s licence photos. But it’s accurate enough for the price, and quick and easy.

But of course, you only need to see someone’s face while checking the ID. Once they’ve been “cleared”, there’s no reason they couldn’t pull a mask on. Why not? As long as you’re not actually looking at their photo ID, it’s functionally non-existent. Anyone past the security checkpoint has been checked, whether you can see their face or not… and if anyone hasn’t been checked, whether you can see their face or not, that’s not an issue with their face-covering, that’s an issue with the security overall.

Areas where only a small, fixed set of authorized personnel are allowed

This would “work” because, again, humans are generally very good at facial recognition, so if the security team could recognize everyone, spotting any unauthorized persons would be easy, fast, reliable, and cheap. The group of authorized personnel would have to be small enough that the security team knows each and every member well enough to identify them on sight, even from a distance. And of course, no outsiders or visitors at all would be allowed. If they are, they would have to wear clearly visible photo tags, which ups the cost a bit, and makes more work for security.

But it’s not a great solution, and not just because it’s so limited in scope. A better solution would be require everyone in the protected area wear a special security bracelet. Security could be alerted the moment someone goes somewhere they shouldn’t, or when someone tampers with their bracelet, or when someone isn’t wearing one. That would be much more secure and effective.

Some specialized situations where post-hoc identification is required

There are a tiny number of situations where there is an area where:

  • only authorized personnel are allowed
  • it is impractical to use a checkpoint to identify people on entry; and
  • it is only important to identify people in the event of an incident.

Face-covering ban proponents will try to argue that everywhere – like “anywhere in public”, or even “outside” – falls into this category. But that’s absurdly wrong, because the primary requirement for this category is that only authorized personnel are allowed, and you don’t need to be “authorized” in any sense to merely be out in public.

The most common example of that situation is driving: only people who have a valid licence are allowed to be doing it, and it’s not realistic to check every licence all the time, but if there’s an incident, it’s important to identify the drivers involved. The only practical way to do that is to require drivers’ faces to be fully visible – not hidden by face-coverings or window tinting. If there’s an incident and the driver involved fled the scene, then when the vehicle was tracked down the owner denied they were the one driving, traffic cameras could confirm that.

But here’s the thing… this is a terrible way to handle this, and only tolerable because we painted ourselves into this corner from the beginning of regulating the roads, and now it’s too expensive to implement a better way. What we should have done, right from the start, is require valid licences to start cars in the first place. The cars could store internally which licence was used and when, and that data could be subpoenaed after an incident. We have the technology to this securely, safely, and reliably, and if we did it, there would be effectively zero driving without a valid licence, dangerous or irresponsible driving (because the moment you do it, you’re caught), or car theft.

And that’s generally true for any situation where you need identification in the event of an incident but a checkpoint beforehand is impractical. It’s always a terrible situation to be in, and you really want a better solution.

These are the only situations where face-covering bans make some kind of sense, and in all cases, there are better solutions. Often those better solutions are impractical, usually for cost reasons, but their existence at least reveals that banning face-coverings isn’t ever ideal.

Despite that, you don’t have to look far to find people arguing that face-covering bans – and particularly general face-covering bans – make sense from a security perspective.

Do they?

Do face-covering bans improve security?

They don’t.

Let’s consider the many ways that face-covering bans fail to improve security.

They don’t solve a problem

Is there a rash of crime being committed by masked people? No? Then what is your alleged security measure securing us from?

That’s not just being flip. Suppose I started calling for banning clothing with built-in LED lights because they could be used to perpetrate crimes by dazzling victims. That’s not an entirely stupid argument: if it’s dark out and someone walks up to you and blinds you with bright lights, you can’t make out their face. It’s even more effective than a mask because it’s less obvious when disabled, it can be activated/deactivated much more quickly, and it even provides light for the criminal so they can better see the target they’re mugging. So does it actually make sense to pass a law to fix this non-problem? No, of course not. You’ll spend more time and resources enforcing the ban than it will ever save you, for no measurable change in the crime rate (except that now there will be more “criminals” due to the people wearing lighted clothing).

“But some criminals do wear masks!”

Yes, they do. However:

  • Do you really believe that if there were a law banning face-coverings, that that would do anything to discourage criminals from masking up? “Well, I’m going to break the law against stealing, while brandishing a weapon that breaks the law against armed assault, and when the cops ask me if I was the robber I’m going to break the law against lying to police… wait, fuck, there’s a law against covering your face? Shit, and I was going to wear a mask; guess I can’t now!”

  • Do you really believe that criminals wear their crime masks while strolling about on the street, riding the bus, going to the library, or getting treated at the hospital? Do you think they’re permanently attached or something?

Literally nothing would change about criminals’ M.O. with a face-covering ban. Even today, criminals don’t don their masks until just before they strike, and they remove them immediately after they flee the scene. They do that because moving around in public while wearing a mask attracts a lot of attention… which kinda defeats the purpose.

And no, nothing changes if the face-covering is an Islamic veil. If someone robs a place wearing a burqa, the cops can, do, and will stop every person in the vicinity wearing a burqa, and they would be justified in doing so. It’s no different from the case where the only description they have is “wearing a red jacket”, so they stop everyone wearing red jackets.

You’re not targeting real criminals, you’re turning innocent people into criminals

A face-covering ban doesn’t actually target criminals. What it does is target a characteristic that some people want to believe only criminals have, so at best it only targets criminals indirectly. Only it doesn’t really do that, because as I pointed out above, criminals don’t wear face-coverings while walking about in public.

The people who do wear coverings out in public – for whatever reason – will become criminals, or at least suspected criminals, under a face-covering ban.

Even trying to use face-covering bans for security will make security worse

Okay, let’s say a face-covering ban passes. Now we can easily track the movements of people, which should make it easier to prevent or solve crimes, right? Not so fast, cowboy.

You see, merely stripping people of face-coverings doesn’t actually do anything on its own. There needs to be:

  • enforcement, or people could just walk around with face-coverings regardless of the ban
  • tracking, or even if everyone’s face is visible, it won’t matter; and
  • analysis, to compare faces to databases of criminals, or even just to a specific criminal currently being pursued.

Each of those things require resources that aren’t being used to prevent or solve actual crimes.

You might think we could get those resources “for free” by using technology, like facial recognition, but….

Facial recognition systems don’t work

There are a number of governments and police departments around the world trying to roll out facial recognition systems. Let’s ignore the privacy concerns. The privacy concerns are extensive and serious and should not be ignored, but let’s do it anyway. We have other fish to fry.

What those governments and numerous researchers have discovered is that facial recognition systems are generally garbage.

Just over a month ago, police in London ran their final public trial of facial recognition technology. The police spun the result as a Great Success, saying they arrested eight people during the eight-hour trial. So, it works, right?

Well….

First, of the eight arrests, only three were due to the actual facial recognition technology. Of those three, one – a 15 year-old boy – was immediately released. So even of the arrests made, only 25% were successful applications of the facial recognition technology.

What was not counted were the people who were stopped because they were flagged by the system, then released without an arrest. And there appear to be several of those.

Also, there was at least one arrest made of an otherwise innocent man because he covered his face. After seeing the signs describing what the cops were doing, he put his hands over his face in protest… as he should be and is legally allowed to do. There was no real reason to stop him, but the cops did, the man was justifiably pissed off about being harassed for doing nothing wrong, and he ended up with a £90 fine for telling the cops to piss off. So… is this what justice looks like now?

And here’s the important thing: Not only was the cops’ time wasted chasing down the false positives the facial recognition system flagged, not only were incidents being created because the system was being misused, the system wasn’t even automated in any case – there were humans looking at the results flagged by the facial recognition software, and then deciding whether to tell the cops to take action or not.

Not exactly a roaring success. At least three cops tied up in one place for eight hours, and only two legitimate arrests were made, neither of which were of a crime in progress. Both suspects could have been arrested simply by the cops gone to their homes to arrest them… yanno, if they hadn’t been sitting around stuck in Romford for eight goddamn hours.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Facial recognition technology might be practical one day, but today it’s just not ready. One amusing demonstration last year of how bad the technology is showed that 28 members of the US Congress were matched to criminal mugshots. There are numerous other well-known problems. For example, systems require training, and they’re obviously usually trained mostly with the ethnic majority… pretty much always white people in the places where these technologies are being invented. The result of that is that the software often doesn’t handle visible minorities well, leading to absurd results like mistaking black women for men.

That all means that what’s probably going to happen is that visible minorities – already disproportionately targeted by police – will be harassed even more often. Especially those unfortunate enough to look somewhat like a known criminal.

I can attest to how badly misidentification can damage someone’s life. When my mother married my father, she took my father’s last name, as per tradition… and then mere months after, started being harassed by police. Turned out there was a prolific fraudster who shared my mother’s new name (and, I believe, possibly the same birth date, or at least birth year, which added to the confusion). This turned into a major problem for her, getting jobs, getting loans, and it even came up when she tried to get Canadian paperwork (passports, I believe) for her kids.

Other uses of facial recognition technology are even more problematic. For example, one proposed use is to prevent crime by using people’s facial expressions to determine whether they’re likely to do something wrong. Where to even begin on how terrible an idea that is?

So face-covering bans don’t help security. In fact, they make it worse.

Yes, I am aware that there are some countries – Cameroon and Chad – that have banned specifically Islamic face-coverings because they actually had incidents where people wearing them committed acts of terrorism. (And there are some countries – the Congo (the small one) and Gabon – that were never attacked, but banned Islamic face-coverings anyway out of fear of similar incidents.)

It does make sense to ban face-coverings in places where terrorist attacks are fairly common. It would also make sense to ban loose clothing or large bags in such places. These are places and situations where things are in a state of crisis, and in a state of crisis, it can be reasonable to take actions that are normally unjustifiable.

It baffles me that people think this actually makes sense generally. A suicide bomber generally isn’t going to care whether they can be identified after the fact or not. And they don’t strap the bombs to their face. (The logic in the countries where these bans exist seems to be that most suicide bombers are men, but authorities are reluctant to search women, so the men dress up as women. Do you see where the problem in the previous sentence is?)

Do you know how many terrorist incidents there have been in Canada in all of the 21st century – so around 20 years now? By my count: 25.

  • 6 of those were pipeline bombings. Face covering is irrelevant in those cases.

  • 3 were vehicle ramming attacks (2014 in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, 2017 in Edmonton, and 2018 in Toronto). Face covering is irrelevant in those cases (you can’t drive a vehicle with your face covered).

  • 11 were arson attacks, all by the FLQ and derivatives. (There are tons of other arson incidents that might be terrorist attacks, a large number of them targeting mosques. However, I don’t have detailed lists of all arson in Canada in the 21st century with their motives.) Face-covering is irrelevant in those cases (the fires were all set when no one was around, so even if they were wearing face coverings, no one would have noticed to call them out on it).

  • The remaining 5 are:

    • An abortion doctor stabbed in his office in 2000. A face-covering ban wouldn’t have made a difference because it was inside a private office.

    • Aaron Driver. We don’t know his target (to my knowledge), but he took a cab directly from his home. A face-covering ban wouldn’t have made a difference. (Though the cab company might have banned face coverings in their vehicles, I suppose. In any case, Driver’s face wasn’t covered.)

    • Richard Bain. He was wearing a mask. A face-covering ban might have made a difference, but not much. It wouldn’t have stopped the attack, but it might have made Bain easier to identify if he escaped… but only in two weird situations: he didn’t put the mask on just before the attack, or he wore the mask for the whole trip from home to the attack. (Realistically, the balaclava probably attracted less attention than the bath robe. Or the assault rifle.)

    • Alexandre Bissonnette. I’m not sure if he covered his face or not. It’s the same situation as with Bain: a face-covering ban would only have made a difference if he hadn’t turned himself in, and either didn’t wear a mask during the attack or wore it for the whole trip from home.

    • Michael Zehaf-Bibeau. He covered his face. But a face-covering ban would have made no difference anyway; one could hardly believe he would have obeyed that rule in the middle of his killing spree. He drove his own car, so he couldn’t cover his face for the trip, and apparently intended to die, so there was no point hiding his identity.

So a face-covering ban wouldn’t help security at all in Canada. And, as pointed out previously, it would actually make us less secure.

In summary, the “security” argument is complete bullshit:

  • Banning face coverings may make sense in limited areas (where only a small, fixed set of authorized people are allowed) or specific contexts (if you’re in an area where terrorism is a real problem). They don’t make sense generally.

  • People intending to commit a crime usually don’t wear their mask until they’re actually perpetrating the crime, because it would draw too much attention to them. When they’re actually in the act of perpetrating a crime, a face-covering ban is hardly an issue for them.

  • Assuming everyone covering their face is up to something will generate far too many false positives, and waste law enforcement resources.

  • Facial recognition technologies don’t work, and will only create more problems and waste more resources.

When your body becomes public property

The security argument is the primary justification for face-covering bans, but not the only one. There is another commonly used argument, and it is much more insidious.

This argument comes in many forms, because it is so offensively stupid, people have to keep tweaking it each time it gets recognized for what it is. The general gist of it is that for “reasons” – never clearly explained – it is necessary for you to expose your face, or society can’t function.

Why can’t society function if people can’t see each others’ faces? That’s also never clearly explained. But people making this argument have tossed out every idea they can in the hope that something will stick.

You might think that someone would have to be pretty dumb to make the argument that society will collapse if you can’t see people’s faces, and that the only people making the argument are boneheads on Facebook or Twitter. If that’s what you think, you’re in for a depressing surprise. This is a very popular argument, and some of the people making it are supposed to be very smart.

[Photo of Philippe Couillard]
Philippe Couillard

Back when the Québec Liberals were making the case for their face-covering ban, then-Premier Philippe Couillard made this statement:

We are in a free and democratic society. You speak to me, I should see your face, and you should see mine. It’s as simple as that.

To be more fair to Couillard than he probably deserves, he was speaking specifically in the context of giving or receiving public services; he wasn’t talking about a general face-covering ban. But even in that context, this is a pretty stupid statement – nothing more than a bizarre non-sequitur. “We are in a free and democratic society. You flirt with me, I should see your genitals, and you should see mine. It’s as simple as that.”

And why does Couillard think it’s so important to be able to see someone’s face? [R]easons linked to communication, identification, and safety. What reasons linked to communication, identification, and safety? He never bothers to say.

So we have to guess (as usual). We’ve already covered the “identification” and “safety” arguments broadly, but let’s consider them again in the current, narrow context.

Identification

If you want to interact with someone, you almost never need to identify them. Virtually every shop I go into to make a purchase, I’m never asked for ID. I walk up to the cashier with the articles I want, I make a payment – often with a card the cashier never handles, let alone verifies that I’m the owner of – and then I leave. And that’s a far more intimate interaction than most of what happens on an average day: the vast majority of encounters are nothing more than a passing wave, nod, or “thanks”.

For the tiny minority of interactions that require identification, the level of identification required usually doesn’t rise to the level where you even need to see someone’s face. Most of the time their clothing would be enough, or their voice. Or even just a quick confirmation request: you ask, “hey, Sam?”, and get, “Yeah?”, and you know you’re talking to Sam with a high enough level of confidence for most conversations.

And for the even tinier minority of interactions that require a good deal of confidence about identity… you can simply ask to see their face! For fuck’s sake, it’s not that ridiculous a thing to request if you actually have a legitimate reason for it. You could just tell the person: “Look, I’ve got something important that I want to discuss with you, Sam, but before I do, I really have to be sure this is actually you, because this is confidential stuff.” Assuming the request is legitimate, no reasonable person would refuse it. Sam could show their face to you, and once you’ve got your confirmation they could re-cover it, and then you could have your conversation.

So public interactions almost never require identification, and in the rare cases that they do, they almost never require a high enough level of confidence in someone’s identity that you need to see their face. And in the very, very rare cases where you do need that level of confidence you can just ask to see their face. Once you’ve confirmed their identity, they can cover up for the rest of the interaction.

Safety

I admit that I’m at a bit of a loss here. I don’t see how a conversation becomes more dangerous to you if the person you’re talking to has their face covered. I don’t see how that makes any sense at all.

I get that a masked person represents a greater threat before an interaction begins. If a masked person approaches you, it’s perfectly reasonable to be more apprehensive about what might unfold than if an unmasked person approaches. That’s fine and that’s fair, and assuming they’re not a complete idiot, it’s something the masked person has already taken into account. The onus is on them to signal to you that they’re not a threat as they’re approaching, if they really want to interact with you. That could be by showing you their face, or other means (for example, calling out your name so you can recognize their voice).

But once they’ve convinced you they’re not a threat at least enough that you’re willing to actually engage with them, how does their face-covering make the interaction any more dangerous? Either you know who they are now, or you’ve accepted that you’re talking to a stranger… and in the latter case, you’re in just as much danger as you would be with any stranger, whether their face is visible or not.

Communication

As baffling as the safety argument is, this one is even more baffling.

Sure, I get that seeing someone’s face can improve communication fidelity (sometimes!), but it’s not like the lack of facial cues makes communication impossible, or even all that difficult.

I mean, I’ve actually people had insist to me that if they can’t see someone’s face, they can’t have a conversation with them. And… all I could do was stand there in bewilderment… wanting to ask them: have you ever used a fucking phone?

And what about blind people? Are they incapable of communicating effectively because they can’t see facial expressions? “Sorry, dude, I mean, I can hear your words with all their semantic content and I can hear your voice with all its emotive inflection … but since I can’t see your facial expression, I just have no clue what you’re saying.”

And what about communication via writing? Academic and technical data is better communicated in book form than via face-to-face chat. Granted, writing is not ideal for all types of communication, but it certainly works well for some, and there’s no need for facial expressions there.

So far, this argument is just silly. But it crosses the line into dangerous when people start talking about having a “right” to see your face.

[Photo of Christopher Hitchens]
Christopher Hitchens

You might think again that this is just something you’d hear from know-nothings on the Internet, but again, you’d be wrong. While it’s less common to hear someone claim they have a “right” to see the face of the person they’re talking to, it’s not exactly rare. Even Christopher Hitchens peddled this terrible idea.

I am not even going to try to discuss this idea as if it has any merit. It’s so offensively stupid, and stupidly offensive, that I am just going to respond it by stating the facts:

You do not have a “right”… to any part of another person’s body.

You do not have a “right”… to see, touch, smell, or use… any part of another person’s body.

You do not have a “right” to touch, to use, or even to see a person’s hands.

You do not have a “right” to touch, to use, or even to see a person’s shoulders.

You do not have a “right” to touch, to use, or even to see a person’s face.

Period.

If they decide they want to show you their hands, shoulders, or face – just to see or even to touch or use in some way – then that’s their decision. You have no “right” to demand it.

And if you decide you don’t want to talk to someone unless you can see their face… that’s your fucking problem. Not theirs. If you want to talk to them you either suck it up and deal with your issue with their face-covering, or you leave them alone. (Of course, if you are obligated to talk to them – for example, because it’s your job – then you god-damn do it, or you lose your job.)

So there is no such thing as a “right” to see anyone’s face, ever. And it is not true that society can’t function or people can’t communicate effectively if faces are not visible.

Summary

General face-covering bans are laws that ban fully or partially concealing one’s face in public. While they are technically not religious accessories bans – and supporters will usually fervently insist they’re not – once you really drill down to the motivations, that’s usually what they’re revealed to be about.

There are very rare, very specific situations where face-covering bans make limited sense, but they don’t make sense in general.

General face-covering bans have one or both of two underlying motivations:

  • a government is seeking to suppress protest or monitor and track innocent citizens; or
  • harassing Muslims.

There are no other motivations for a general face-covering ban that hold up to scrutiny. And in fact, non-Islamic face-coverings are broadly accepted in public, and always have been. They only become a problem when islamophbia becomes widespread.

The main attempted justification given for a face-covering ban is that it is for the sake of “security”. That doesn’t hold up to even cursory scrutiny:

  • There is no evidence that face-coverings cause any widespread security or crime problems in Canada, or that they ever have.

  • Real criminals:

    • don’t wear face-coverings while out-and-about in public (because that would attract unwanted attention); and
    • will defy a face-covering ban while committing a crime in any case, making the ban useless.
  • You create more security and crime issues by turning people into criminals for doing nothing more than covering their face, which there are many legitimate reasons for.

  • You waste law enforcement and security resources monitoring and acting on facial recognition systems, which are dodgy at best.

Along with the “security” argument, some people argue that face-coverings somehow prevent society from functioning, due to restricting communication, “openness” or other things. These arguments are never properly explained, and don’t seem to make any sense.

Somehow modern society has managed to get by without a face-covering ban for as long as it’s been modern society, so what has changed suddenly in the last decade or two to make a ban necessary? The answer is obvious: Muslims. The rise of calls for face-covering bans tracks perfectly with the rise of “concern” about the increasing number of Muslims in traditionally non-Muslim societies. And when you really corner proponents of such bans and drill into their motivations, you will always eventually find that Muslim veils are the major “problem” they’re aiming to solve.

So don’t be fooled by the pseudo-secular pretense of general face-covering bans. They’re religious accessories bans, aimed specifically at Islamic practices. They serve no real secular purpose, neither for “security” nor the continued smooth function of modern society. They’re nothing more than targeted harassment.

One thought on “Religious accessories bans are wrong: The right to your face

  1. At the time this piece was written and published, the data about the London facial recognition technology trial wasn’t fully available. In particular, I noted that we didn’t have any data on the number of false positives (though estimates suggested it was high).

    Those numbers are now available. The false positive rate was 96%. Two of the eight trials had a 100% failure rate.

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