Why Masks Depicting England’s Guy Fawkes Were Banned in Saudi Arabia
With its highly-stylized moustache, the so-called Anonymous mask has featured in multiple protests across the globe. Described by the Fair Observer as “a staple of anti-authoritarian activist iconography,” the mask has been present at events in Moscow, London and Egypt’s Tahrir Square. It was even coopted by the far-right on January 6th, 2021, when Donald Trump supporters tried to storm Capitol Hill in Washington. But its roots actually go back to 1606 AD.
But who does it actually represent? Inspired by the story of Guy Fawkes, this mask entered public consciousness thanks to the 1980s British comic series V for Vendetta, illustrated by David Lloyd, which tells the story of an anarchist character who, wearing a mask to hide his identity, battles against fascism in a dystopian England. The mask came to the mainstream in 2006 with the resulting film by the same name.
Anyone who grew up in the England will have celebrated Guy Fawkes Night. While most merely enjoy the fireworks and bonfires, November 5th was originally declared a day of national remembrance by King James I in 1606 to celebrate a failed Catholic conspiracy to blow up London’s Houses of Parliament. Over time, people began burning effigies during the festivities, not only of Fawkes, but of the Pope as well. By the 18th century, they were even creating Guy Fawkes masks.
19th-century depiction of the infamous Guy Fawkes, by George Cruikshank. (Public domain)
The original gunpowder plot was planned to take place in 1605, when a group of Catholics conspired to annihilate parliament during its State Opening. The plan was to kill the Protestant King – King James I of England and VI of Scotland – and make way for a Catholic monarch.
This was a complex era when anti-Catholic sentiment in Britain was running high. The situation had its roots in the 16th century English Reformation, when King Henry VIII abolished Catholic Papal authority and declared himself head of the Protestant Church of England. This led to the persecution of Catholics under Elizabeth I and James I.
While Guy Fawkes was not the brainchild of the plot, he was the explosives expert who was caught red-handed. His capture, torture and suicide-from-the-gallows made him one of the most renowned figures in English history. While Protestants saw Fawkes as guilty of treason, his role as a Catholic freedom fighter has morphed into a source of inspiration for the downtrodden.
Anonymous protesters wearing Guy Fawkes masks during a 2008 Los Angeles rally against Scientology. (Vincent Diamante / CC BY-SA 2.0)
The Guy Fawkes mask really took off around 2008 when it was used in protests by the Anonymous hacker group. It was then employed by anti-establishment groups protesting tyranny, popping up in rallies including Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter and the Arab Spring protests of 2011 in the Middle East.
Its popularity was fueled by subsequent attempts to banish the infamous Guy Fawkes mask. Arguing that it “instills a culture of violence and extremism,” Saudi Arabia announced a ban on its import in 2013, following in the footsteps of both Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.
Top image: Guy Fawkes masks have become a symbol of anarchy and protest against tyranny, seen here during a protest in Madrid. Source: Daniel López García / CC BY 2.0