identity politics: Masks are still being worn by some individuals—but not for health reasons

Sainee Raj and her mask have been constant companions since early 2020. Till the end of 2021, she never stepped out of the house without a mask for obvious health reasons. But she has continued to wear one even after the government lifted the mask mandate in most states in early 2022. “Now I wear a mask to protect myself from the world,” says the writer and actor from Mumbai.

“Masks provide a certain anonymity in the offline world that makes me feel relatively less concerned about my existence as a woman while navigating crowded markets or using public transport,” she says. Wearing a mask has reduced the frequency of lecherous incidents for her when she’s out in public. It also helps her conceal her emotions should she unexpectedly run into someone she doesn’t want to. “Before the pandemic, I did not think masks could be used to go incognito like this.”

A remnant of the Covid-19 era, masks are being worn by some individuals not only for health reasons but also for the sake of privacy. The demand for masks has dropped significantly after Covid. A Statista Consumer Market Insights report reveals that in 2021, about 402 billion masks were sold worldwide, compared with an estimated 23 billion in 2023.

However, the 2023 figure is still nearly double the global mask sales of 12.5 billion units in the pre-Covid year of 2019. Today, masks have inadvertently become a means for some people to hide their identity from people in their social circle, housing society, workplace and the public at large. In other words, masks have given people the ability to ‘turn off the video’ even outside of Zoom calls.

Makeup artist Shruti Kode always wears a mask on the job now. It is not just because of the nature of her work, which requires her to be in close proximity with the client. “I don’t like to be ‘seen’, especially at work. The mask helps me avoid attention and makes me feel comfortable,” she says. When accompanying a showbiz client on shoots, it is a running joke on the set that the crew will catch a glimpse of her face only at the wrap party; otherwise, her appearance remains a mystery.

Wearing masks has started to come up in conversations about women in safe workspaces. “In one session last year, some women pointed out how wearing a mask in a professional setting often helps them speak freely without constantly worrying if others are mentally commenting on their looks or are genuinely engaged in the conversation,” says Pallavi Pareek, founder of Conduct, an HR tech solutions company for inclusive and POSHcompliant workplaces from Bengaluru. “It takes the focus of the interaction away from physical appearance and on the topic at hand,” she adds. Pareek calls this a “double-edged sword” as it could also lead to feelings of isolation and a sense of being hidden among these women.“However, as a woman told me: ‘If I can’t change the way they see me, I will monitor the parts of me they will see. This they can’t take away from me.’”This also points to the larger issue of women having to disguise themselves to navigate public spaces, says Kalpana Viswanath, cofounder of Safetipin, a social enterprise from Gurgaon that provides tech solutions to make cities safer for women. In cities like Jaipur and Bhopal, it’s common to see women covering their faces with a dupatta while riding a two-wheeler or using public transport.

Although it is widely used for sun protection, Viswanath’s research reveals that women also do it to shield themselves from moral policing. “Mask is just another tool we have had to learn to include while venturing out of the house, among things like pepper spray and a safety app,” she says. “It’s also not as stuffy as covering your face with a dupatta.”

A scientific research consultant from Mumbai told ET that she wore a mask before joining a vigil for Palestinians earlier this year. She had come across a tweet from a US based community for artists, suggesting safety tips for protests, including covering the face and concealing identifiable features like tattoos. “I initially thought of wearing a scarf, but it looks very ‘hijab-coded’ so I thought a mask would be better,” says the researcher, who is also a Muslim, on the condition of anonymity.

Masks, once a pandemic necessity, now shield women from societal expectations and identity politics. However, their unintended privacy feature is not limited to women. Vinay Mishra, a 27-year-old man, wears a mask while commuting on the train from his home in Thane. “After the pandemic, I found comfort in wearing a mask. It’s like having an invisibility cloak. I often lip-sync while listening to music. When I wear unique outfits, like the silver jacket and pants I’m wearing right now, people tend to stare. Without a mask, I feel exposed,” he says.

Beyond physical protection, “masks offer psychological refuge by concealing appearance and mitigating social pressures,” says Taamra Ranganath, a counselling psychologist who spoke to ET from a cyclone-hit and flood-ridden Chennai earlier this week. In her practice as a student counsellor, she observes that even students in Classes VI to X find comfort in masks. It takes the weight of judgement off their shoulders while they navigate a turbulent adolescence, she says. “For the clinical population, especially those with social anxiety, masks act as a breather, offering safety and confidence in social interactions,” she adds. “In professional settings, masks can also offer liberation from the expectation of constant cheerfulness.” People sometimes use masks to conceal their identity from their workplace as well.

“You’ll notice that most gig and platform workers wear a mask while being interviewed by the media on various issues related to aggregator companies,” says Shaik Salauddin, founder of the Telangana Gig and Platform Workers Union. “They do this to avoid getting identified by their employer, which puts them at the risk of getting blocked by the aggregator app,” he says. Before the pandemic, they wore helmets in similar scenarios. Mask is a more convenient option that doesn’t draw attention to their efforts to stay unidentified, he says.

Ironically, while some people look for ways to go unnoticed in public, celebrities seldom feel the need. Being photographed without explicit permission, or getting papped, is something they often rely on to remain relevant in public memory.

But celebrities wear masks to hide their look for a particular ad or movie, which they are contractually obligated to, says Viral Bhayani, a celebrity photographer. “Before the pandemic, when they got papped in such situations, they would request us to take the photos down from the internet. Now they just wear masks,” he says. Bhayani notes that celebrities occasionally wear masks to avoid media attention during legal issues, citing the example of businessman Raj Kundra, actor Shilpa Shetty’s spouse, who wore a mask in public throughout the last two years while fighting a pornography case against him. He recently got a clean chit in the case from the Enforcement Directorate.

While the pandemic may have normalised mask-wearing, people like Kode often find themselves having to explain why they continue to wear one. Like in the digital realm, few appreciate and understand the right to privacy in the offline world.

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