‘If you’re seen taking a side, you could lose your job’.
I was brought into a small room as my manager gave me a disapproving look.
‘If you have to go to these protests,’ she continued, ‘you can’t be photographed. You must, I don’t know, cover your face’.
It was 2018 and I worked in a design role in Parliament.
I guess being an activist, I shot myself in the foot for taking the job, but as a struggling artist, I accepted their offer.
By then, I had a history of protesting – my first one in 2003 was demonstrating against the war in Iraq, and I’ve been on marches for LGBTQ+ rights, Black Lives Matter, and recently, in solidarity with Palestine.
I used to leave my face uncovered, proudly standing for my right to speak with passion, for what I believed.
And so, the day after I was reprimanded, I attended one opposing Brexit down the road from my office in Westminster. But this time I covered my face with my scarf. As I was told.
Looking over the crowd I recognised someone else from my office as they also raised a scarf over their mouth – and we shared a brief nod of recognition.
Six years later and no longer in the same job, it’s a habit I’ve kept up for my own safety.
But thanks to further crackdowns on protests announced by the Home Office, it could land me in jail, or facing a fine of £1,000.
The Home Office says these new rules are an attempt to clampdown on disruption at protests. But they’re literally meant to cause disruption and that’s always been the case – so what’s changed?
As someone who has gone bare-faced and with a covering, I’ve learned that the latter has enhanced my experience.
The truth is, being told to wear a mask in 2018 was great advice – granted it was to protect the department and save face – but it gave me the ability to protest safely. This feels especially important as a queer South-Asian woman who has been abused on marches before.
Masking meant I could stand for what I believe in, and I didn’t have to worry about my identity.
Now, the Home Office have decided they want to take that safety away.
But people don’t just wear masks to stop themselves from being identified, but for health reasons, too.
At the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, I wore a mask because of Covid – as did everyone around me.
And those who have their immune system compromised will also want to wear one still. Everyone has a right to demonstrate, and importantly, they also have the right to minimise the chance of being infected.
We also have to consider the sad fact that many of us feel we need protection from those who are policing protests.
In March 2023, a report revealed that the Met Police are institutionally racist, misogynistic and homophobic. Many of us weren’t shocked, and seasoned activists often use masks to distance ourselves from the force.
At recent Palestine solidarity marches, I’ve seen things become heated.
At one, in Southall in December, I witnessed an officer push an elderly Muslim man.
Many of the crowd, myself included, took out our phones and started taking pictures.
The majority of those at the demonstration covered their faces – and were largely people of colour.
I was also aware that a significant number of those attending were immigrants, many refugees, who were masked partly so they could avoid falling victim to the precarious asylum system and being sent home.
But it isn’t just the police who create fear. Right wingers attend protests, collect information, photographs and videos – they are uploaded on social media, and messageboards.
Far-right agitators have harassed activists or journalists, with Tommy Robinson even going to one’s address.
In my 20 years of protesting, I’ve been subjected to all manner of abuse. On my first ever demonstration in 2003 against the invasion of Iraq, aged just 18, I was called a ‘f*****g p**i’ by someone who walked past and took issue with my sign.
I was terrified. It was the first time I’d ever been called that.
It was around this time I understood that I had to take care of my safety. It was two years after 9/11, and it was scary being brown in that atmosphere.
It still is, but covering my face makes me a less obvious target.
Taking away our ability to wear masks takes away our ability to create some safety in an unsafe world.
And if we lift that mask, that scarf, that line of safety – we all suffer.
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