Faceless or Voiceless? Banning Burqas in Denmark

By: Eva Branson

After years of on-and-off contemplation, the Danish coalition government (Conservative Party, the Liberal Alliance, and Liberal Party) and its support party, the Danish People’s Party (Dansk Folkeparti), is finally endorsing what people are calling “The Burqa Ban.” The bill includes a ban on all full-facial coverings, including niqabs and, as the name would suggest, burqas. Danes are largely in favor of such a ban, according to a poll published by The Local Denmark. This poll asserts that a whopping 62% of Danes support the ban, only 23% stand in opposition, and the remaining 15% either undecided or unwilling to answer.

The ban coincides with the rise of the populist Dansk Folkeparti. The party has been avidly pushing for a bill like the one currently under consideration since 2014 when spokesman Martin Henriksen called wearing a burqa “a rejection of Danish society.” According to the Dansk Folkeparti Party Program, “Denmark is not an immigrant country and never has been. Thus we will not accept a transformation to a multiethnic society.”[1] It is therefore not surprising the Dansk Folkeparti would support the proposal to ban head coverings, as these garments are associated with Denmark’s Muslim minorities. Dansk Folkeparti is clearly within its rights to express such ideas, but the debate over banning Islamic headdresses raises a question for Denmark – is it constitutional?

The answer is uncertain, but it seems unlikely there would be a successful move to strike down the bill should it become law. Luckily for the Dansk Folkeparti, there is a model for them to follow in France. Along with many other countries (Canada, Austria, Belgium, Germany, and Bulgaria), France has already passed a ban on burqas. In 2014, the ban was brought to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). Despite the clearly problematic religious implications, the ECHR upheld the French government’s right to have the law. The ECHR also upheld a corresponding law in Belgium. Like the US and France, Denmark has a constitutional protection for freedom of religion, but that may not be enough to protect burqa-wearers. Even if the ECHR once again ignored the rights of burqa-wearing women and constitutionality was upheld, the introduction of an era where ideological populism outweighs religious rights is problematic and dangerous.

The Burqa ban seems to have a broad base of support across Danish political parties. Along with the Dansk Folkeparti, the Liberal Party, the Conservative Party, and the Liberal Alliance Party have all publicly announced support for the ban. Liberal Party spokesman Jakob Ellemann-Jessen recently stated that “the Liberal Party will support a ban on masking that will be forthcoming.”

Trying to justify the ban on constitutional grounds, Ellemann-Jessen went on to explain that the ban is not “religiously defined.” Instead, he argues “society needs people to be able to look each other in the eye and meet face-to-face.” In spite of this claim, Ellemann-Jessen and the Liberal Party are partnering with Dansk Folkeparti, who have been extremely open with their desire to promote religious uniformity by ridding Denmark of Islam, with this bill as one mechanism to achieve their goal. The ban is therefore clearly religiously motivated. By partnering with the Dansk Folkeparti, the Liberal Party is complicit in discriminating against Islam, and Ellemann-Jessen’s quote is merely empty rhetoric. Elleman-Jessen refers only to Danish society and ignores the different religious societies that are struggling to find their place in Denmark.

Although few Danes would be directly impacted by the ban (only about 200 Danes wear burqas), the ban has larger implications. The pervasive xenophobia in this type of legislation is alienating to many people. Ultimately, the legislation could take one of two turns. Those who currently wear burqas may voluntarily elect to surrender them and use a more “open” form of head covering. On the other hand, the ban could lead to an even more oppressive culture than the Muslim culture from which the ban’s proponents believe they are saving Muslim women. Women that currently bear burqas publicly may just choose to stay at home, where they have the freedom to wear whatever headdresses they want. The latter outcome would be in direct conflict with what Danish politicians say they hope to achieve through this bill: inclusivity through cultural integration and liberation of women. This result would mean burqa-wearing women are essentially prevented from contributing to society in any meaningful way. The ban ultimately sends the message to those who choose to wear burqas that they are not allowed to participate in society because of their personal display of faith. The problem, however, is not that these women are unable to participate in the Danish workforce. The ban conveys the narrative that rather than having a dynamic culture shaped around Danes, burqa-wearing or not, those who do not fit into the status quo will never be accepted in Danish society.

A long-term goal of the Dansk Folkeparti is to “help Muslims leave Islam.” They justify this by saying that women are stuck practicing Islam and are in need of external assistance to get out. In practice, however, this goal in relation to the potential ban, is redundant. Dansk Folkeparti says that they want to ban burqas to lessen oppression of Muslim women and thus “free” them from their religion. However, banning burqas, for this reason, is unnecessary. According to Danish law, Chapter 26 Paragraph 260 Article 3 states that it is illegal to force someone to wear an article of clothing that hides a person’s face. This offense is punishable by up to four years in prison. Because of this existing law, it is futile to argue that burqa-wearing women are forced to wear their headdresses. To force them to wear an article of clothing that covers their face would already be illegal, and thus the purported intention of the Burqa Ban is superfluous. Rather than desperately grappling at makeshift justifications, Dansk Folkeparti should own up to what their real aim is: to eliminate Islam from Denmark, promote religious uniformity, and keep foreign influence out of Denmark.           

The ban is clearly problematic, but it does have some validity to it. It is a normalcy in Western cultures to be able to clearly see faces, and for good reason. It is hard to trust someone as an employee if you are not privy to something as basic as their face – it makes it hard to be personable and can make connecting with others significantly more difficult. Burqas certainly inhibit its wearers’ assimilation into Danish culture because they clearly signal “foreignness” and a departure from Danish norms. Despite these facts, the EHRC and the governments that have passed these bans have neglected the rights of Muslims to participate in their nation’s society. By banning burqas, the bill’s proponents work to alienate the very group they claim to be trying to integrate. It is no one’s God-given right to see the faces of others. It may be uncomfortable and it may be culturally divisive, but the women who choose to wear burqas are entitled to their own ways of expressing their faith. It is unlikely that women will surrender their burqas and niqabs. By choosing to keep their burqas on up to this point, they show that faith is more important to them than acceptance into Danish society. Rather, it is much more probable that these women will further isolate themselves and stay at home, making the legislation obsolete. This bill will make no one less uncomfortable, will inevitably alienate a 200-person sect of Danish culture, and condone religious intolerance. On a larger scale, this sends the message to the world that even in developed countries like Denmark, it is admissible to discriminate based on religion. The narrative of many policymakers that women are being forced against their will to wear burqas is unfounded in empirical evidence. The women who choose to wear their burqas do not need saving. They need acceptance.

[1] Self-translated

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