Copenhagen, Denmark: Denmark this week wrote the latest chapter in a global story that is becoming strangely familiar. The country’s new ban on any “garment that hides the face in public”—widely understood to be targeting Islamic veils like the burqa and niqab—entered into effect on Wednesday.
Limitations on wearing face veils in public have already been enacted in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Bulgaria, and Austria. They’ve been debated as far as Australia and the Canadian province of Quebec. Despite regional differences, a similar pattern of events has recurred in some of the countries. Although not every element of the pattern has appeared in every country, France, Quebec, and Austria, for instance, have followed a progression that goes roughly like this.
First, politicians in a country propose banning the face veil, which is worn by a small number of Muslim women and reflects one interpretation of the Quran’s injunction to “cover and be modest.” They argue that a ban will promote integration, or public safety, or that wearing a veil is inconsistent with national values like gender equality. Pundits and lawmakers loudly debate the policy, and the argument rages in the press. A few propose legal challenges. Eventually, the ban is passed into law.
Then, Muslims protest in the streets together with non-Muslims, some of whom wear veils in solidarity. Then comes yet another round of loud debate, amplified across the media. With time, reports indicate that discrimination against Muslims is rising in the country. Many Muslim women begin to hold more tightly to their religious identity, and some who didn’t wear the veil before the ban now start wearing it as an act of protest. Some others opt to stay home, though it’s impossible to say how widespread the phenomenon is.
If the ban was truly meant to promote gender equality, it appears to backfire. And yet, a few months later, another country enacts its own ban, and the whole process happens all over again.
Denmark has so far followed this progression. It was nine years ago that the right-wing Danish People’s Party first called for a ban on full-face coverings in public. But the move later found support elsewhere on the political spectrum. More recently, Marcus Knuth, of the ruling liberal party Venstre, argued that full-face veils are “strongly oppressive.” The justice minister, Søren Pape Poulsen, called one such full-face covering, the niqab, “incompatible with the values in Danish society.” The law enacting the ban passed in May. As it entered into force this Wednesday, hundreds of Muslims protested while wearing the now-illegal veils. They were joined by non-Muslims, many of whom also covered their faces—with everything from niqabs to horse-head masks—in solidarity.
On Thursday, I spoke to Sabina, a 21-year-old Muslim who lives in Copenhagen and wears the niqab. (She declined to give her last name out of concern for her safety.) She told me she’s worried the ban will result in niqab-wearing women becoming isolated in their homes. “I haven’t been out all day because I really have to consider if it’s worth going out and worth me getting a fine, because I’m at risk of that now—every time I step out of my front door, I’m a criminal.” A violation results in a fine of about $150 for a first-time offender.
But she added that she and other women will refuse to take off the veil. “The niqab is a huge part of my identity. It’s a very spiritual choice—and now it has also become a sign of protest,” she said. “I actually believe that whenever politicians make these discriminatory laws, we only get stronger. We feel that this ban has made us a lot more vocal, brave, and strong. We are encouraging even more women to wear the niqab. It has already resulted in me being more firm in my beliefs and holding more tightly to my niqab.”
If the experience of places like France, Quebec, and Austria are any indication, Denmark’s ban is likely to keep backfiring.
France banned Muslim headscarves and other conspicuous religious symbols from public schools in 2004, and banned full-face veils from all public spaces in 2010. President Nicolas Sarkozy declared, “It is a question of freedom and of women’s dignity. The burqa is not a religious sign. It is a sign of the subjugation, of the submission, of women.” But instead of complying, some young Muslim women began to express resentment of French society, and doubled down on head-covering as a form of political protest. “It’s my way of fighting, to say no to the government, who took away my liberty,” said one woman who began veiling herself after 2010.
(Courtesy: Global Governance Watch)