Yet another European country has voted to ban the niqab – the face covering worn by some Muslim women. Now Denmark joins France, Germany and Belgium in the move which will come into force on 1st August this year.
As usual, the rhetoric is that this move is not aimed at any religion. Headscarves, turbans and Jewish skull caps are still being permitted to be worn, and the law does allow people to cover their faces for a ‘recognisable purpose’. So, bike helmets and clothing that provides cover in cold weather are still being permitted. The latter is a wise exception, given that winter temperatures in Copenhagen can vary between 0 and 2 degrees centigrade.
Those who break the law could be fined 1,000 kroner (£118) for the first offence and repeat offenders could face fines of up to 10,000 kroner (£1,178) or a jail sentence of up to six months. The legislation was proposed by the country’s centre-right governing coalition with 75 Danish MPs approving the law, 30 opposed and 74 not taking part.
Those who have been monitoring European partiality for burqa bans will not be surprised to know that, statistics suggest that most Muslim women in Denmark do not wear full-face veils with numbers ranging from 100 to 200.1
There is no requirement in Islam for women to wear the niqab. The Holy Qur’an simply directs women to cover their heads and to dress modestly:
‘And say to the believing women that they restrain their eyes and guard their private parts, and that they disclose not their natural and artificial beauty except that which is apparent thereof, and that they draw their head-coverings over their bosoms.’2
The language in the debate is telling, and seems to focus less on fears of terror attacks by those disguised in burqas, as has often been the case, and more on what the veil represents to its opponents. The rhetoric around this ban seems to be less about the integration of communities, and more about what the burqa signifies to others.
According to Justice Minister Soeren Pape Poulsen such veils are ‘disrespectful’ to the community. ‘With a ban on covering the face, we are drawing a line in the sand and underlining that in Denmark we show each other trust and respect by meeting face to face.’3
Interestingly the law also bans ‘fake beards.’ How ironic that the Danes should be pursuing polices that which seem to resonate with Taliban obsessions about male facial hair. Perhaps we should pause for a moment here and consider the plight of the numerous Father Christmases this December, who could now be subjected to the indignity of having their beards being pulled off in front of screaming young children.
The Danish parliament is also to consider whether to become the first country to ban boys being circumcised after a petition forced lawmakers to debate the issue. The citizens’ petition calls for the introduction of a minimum age of 18 for circumcision to protect ‘children’s fundamental rights’.
According to Naser Khader, the spokesman on human rights and legal affairs, for the Conservative Party, ‘It will put children’s rights ahead of their parents’ religious rights’:
‘For me, it is the main children’s rights [which are paramount]. We have been a pioneer country in many other areas, for example, we have been first movers of homosexuals’ rights and we have been proud.’4
So, in Denmark, it seems that the rights of male children and homosexuals must be protected but the right for a woman to choose what she wears and how she dresses is the preserve of politicians?
It is hard not to wonder about the significance of the targeting of the dress code of a relatively few Muslim women. Could this be less about protecting us all from acts of terror or concerns over a lack of social integration, and more about removing from society any overt displays of Muslim identity? The veil in most of its forms, once an icon of female modesty, has largely been abandoned by most other faiths and now remains a potent symbol of Islamic identity.
The current European obsession with those who still choose to wear the veil is reminiscent of the measures taken again Muslims in Spain between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
In his excellent account of the final years of persecution faced by Muslims in Spain in this period, Carr writes ‘On July 29th, 1513 a decree condemned the fact that Morisca [Muslims forced to convert to Christianity] women continued to ‘walk with their faces covered’ and gave the female population a two year grace to allow their almafafas [face veils] to wear out, After that any woman seen with her face covered would be subject to an escalating series of punishments, from the confiscation of the offending garment at the first offence, to flogging and banishment.’5
In these times of fragile global security, it is imperative that we do not allow politicians to use faith to create divisions in society. A glance at European history bears testimony to the devastating consequences of banning overt displays of religious identity, consequences that continue to have ramifications to this day.
About the Author: Sarah Waseem is the Editor of the Book Review Section of The Review of Religions. She works as a clinical psychologist and also volunteers as Head of the Ladies’ Production Team for Muslim Television Ahmadiyya International (MTA).
2. The Holy Qur’an, 24:32.
5. Mathew Carr, Blood and Faith: The Purging of Muslim Spain, 1492-1614 (London: Hurst, 2009), 94.