As someone who’s worn a niqab for the last eight years, I know a thing or two about covering my face in public. And when COVID-19 hit our country and masks gradually became common—and then mandatory—in most indoor settings, I saw my friends and colleagues struggle with the same challenges I faced when I first started wearing a niqab.
Since masks are here for the foreseeable future, I thought I’d share a few tips I’ve picked up over the years. I hope they bring you comfort, convenience and style.
Early on, I remember being told to speak up when I mumbled to a bus terminal clerk that I needed to refill my Presto card: she couldn’t read my lips to fill in the blanks in the noisy building. I started wearing a niqab just before entering the second year of undergrad at the University of Toronto-Mississauga, and I worried about whether my professors or classmates would be able to hear me with my face covered.
Eventually, I realized that my problem was more about confidence than anything else. I have a naturally loud voice; wearing a niqab became an excuse to use it. Now, I speak as clearly as possible, and I seldom get asked to speak up.
Fit matters, too. Public health guidelines say masks should fit “snugly”—not loose enough to slip down. At the same time, I know from experience that if it’s wrapped so tightly that the material hugs your lips, it becomes difficult to speak. As you’re choosing a mask size, find a balance that feels right for you.
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Smile with your eyes
I am one of those fortunate souls blessed with a set of straight teeth, sans braces. Growing up, I always flashed a big, toothy grin for school photos. One of my biggest fears when I began wearing a niqab was that I’d lose my smile. I was particularly worried that all anyone would see when they looked at me was a “foreigner” who probably didn’t speak English, let alone mingle with the rest of society. The stereotypes made my stomach churn.
But not all emotions are expressed through our lips, and it is absolutely possible to convey warmth when your smile is covered. Our eyes play a big role in projecting happiness, and can even show more genuine joy than smiles which can be forced.
I learned I could still exchange happy glances with colleagues, passersby, and bus drivers—and they’d smile back. Smiling with your eyes also helps inspire trust, which helped me feel more comfortable meeting people who may not have seen a niqabi before.
A note about glasses
Practically speaking, masks are not the most convenient apparel for people who wear glasses. In the winter, entering a building from the frigid outdoors turns us into vacant-eyed zombies, and masks and niqabs together can make that a year-round experience. A face covering that fogs your glasses can make it hard to drive safely, too.
Fortunately, I got rid of my glasses five years ago with laser eye surgery, but there are cheaper solutions to avoid clouding your vision every time you breathe into a mask. My mom has been a niqabi for over 50 years and is a longtime glasses-wearer, too. She taught me a simple trick: pull the face-covering high up on the bridge of your nose and rest your glasses on the cloth itself. I still do it whenever I wear sunglasses.
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Dress to impress
Face coverings can be beauty boosters: It’s much easier to cover zits, for example, and avoid the embarrassment of having your boss notice something stuck between your teeth. But I did wonder when I started wearing a niqab if I would still look and feel like myself.
The federal government says COVID-19 protection masks should have “at least two layers of tightly woven material fabric (such as cotton or linen).” Within those guidelines, you can pick a colour and cloth that suits you. I’m a fan of solid colours (dark or neutral) and subtle prints. I love white but avoid wearing it to places where I’m going to eat for obvious reasons.
It’s important to know your skin type and which fabrics suit you, especially if the mask will be on your face for long periods of time. I find polyester and silk get too hot. My go-tos for niqabs are rayon and cashmere, which are both soft and breathable year-round. (Side note: if you’re expecting your face to get wet over the course of the day—from brushing your teeth between meals or whatever—make sure to dry it completely before putting your mask back on. Otherwise, it can lead to serious itching.)
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At the end of the day, I find it helpful to remember that underneath our face coverings—whether bright and patterned, or simple and unobtrusive—people are dealing with the stress of this challenging time in their own way. Let’s be kind to each other and ourselves. A squinty-eyed smile to a stranger might make someone’s day. And if that baby pink-cotton scarf makes you feel good, wear it.
If you come up with tips of your own, please share them at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m sure you’ll all be pros in no time.