Protests, counter protests and acts of civil disobedience are expected in Denmark Wednesday, as the country implements a nationwide burqa ban.
Approved by Danish lawmakers in May, the new law, which came into force Wednesday, makes the Scandinavian country the latest European nation to ban full-face Islamic veils, such as the burqa and niqab — garments that Marcus Knuth of the ruling liberal party Venstre party has claimed are “strongly oppressive.”
While the Danish government has argued the ban, which also extends to other face-covering garments such as balaclavas, doesn’t target any religion, critics disagree.
In the cities of Copenhagen and Aarhus, protesters from Danish Muslim and left-wing groups have planned civil disobedience demonstrations for Wednesday evening to show their opposition to the law, which they complained is a restriction on personal freedom that is discriminatory towards Muslim women.
“The goal is to hit religious minority women and dictate what kind of clothes they may wear. We believe that there is obvious discrimination,” said the page organizing the event. “It's not the state's task to dictate our attire.”
Sabina (who did not want her last name used for fear of receiving harassment) is one of the women who will be defying the law Wednesday. The 21-year-old trainee teacher, who has worn the niqab for the past year and a half, said the ban would have a huge impact on her life.
“My life is going to change very drastically. It means every time I leave my front door I’m actually a criminal. I’m at risk of getting a fine every time I walk down the street,” she told VICE News.
“It’s going to have huge consequences for me because I’m going to measure whether it is necessary for me to leave my home or not.”
She said the political debate around the issue had unleashed racist and discriminatory rhetoric towards Muslims, and had already led to increased hostility towards veiled women in public. But conversely it had also inspired greater expressions of support and solidarity, as evidenced by the non-Muslim groups joining in Wednesday’s demonstrations.
While the protesters plan to defy the new ban as they march through Copenhagen, wearing burqas and other masks, police have said they’ll be free to do so without risking the 1,000 kroner ($157) fine that the new law imposes for a first offence.
Deputy Inspector Benny Øchkenholt told the Danish Broadcasting Corporation that police were granting protesters dispensation to wear the burqa at the demonstration, because it was considered a legitimate expression of opinion.
“We consider it a worthwhile purpose in terms of freedom of speech and the right to gather and demonstrate,” he said.
That’s angered one of the lawmakers who has pushed for the ban. Martin Henriksen, immigration spokesman for the right-wing populist Danish People’s Party, said the police’s reluctance to enforce the ban at the protest sent “a bad message.”
The Danish People’s Party, the second-largest party in the country’s parliament, was the first to call for the ban nine years ago. When the law was passed by 75 votes to 30 in May, Henriksen said the vote was a statement from parliament “that the burqa and niqab do not belong in Denmark.”
Denmark’s Minister of Justice Søren Pape Poulsen has made similar comments, calling the niqab “incompatible with the values in Danish society” and saying it was “disrespectful to the community to keep one's face hidden when meeting each other in public spaces.”
A demonstration Wednesday in support of the law is being held, at which Henriksen will be thanked for his work in pushing the legislation.
Under the law, people wearing full-face coverings in public places will be told by police to go home and change, and will face a fine of 1,000 kroner ($157) that increases to 10,000 kroner or a jail sentence of up to six months for repeat offenders. The law also criminalizes the act of forcing women to wear such garments.
There’s an exemption for face coverings worn for a “recognizable purpose,” such as wearing a scarf in cold weather, or a motorcycle helmet.
Human rights groups have also been critical of the law, the latest move from Denmark’s ruling center-right coalition that has taken a number of steps towards tightening asylum and immigration laws in recent years. Amnesty International’s Deputy Europe Director Fotis Filippou said that the law essentially “criminalizes women for their choice of clothing, making a mockery of the freedoms Denmark purports to uphold.”
Only a tiny minority of Denmark’s 5.7 million people wear the niqab or burqa; the most recent official estimates, from 2010, put the number at between 150 to 200.
France became the first European country to introduce a similar ban in 2011, amid anxieties over the integration of the country’s Muslim minority. Since then, bans have followed in Belgium, the Netherlands, Bulgaria and parts of Switzerland.
Sabina, who was born into a Muslim family in Copenhagen, told VICE News that the characterization of the burqa as a symbol of oppression was wrong in her eyes. She said she was the only member of her family to wear the niqab, and that she chose to do so of her own volition, as a spiritual choice.
Despite the ban, she said she intended to continue to wear the niqab, whatever the consequences.
“It’s a spiritual choice I choose to make. It’s a reminder to me of God and a way to connect with God,” she said.
“And now it has a political meaning for me as well, because I see it as a sign of protest.”
Cover image: A woman wearing a niqab, the islamic full veil, walks in a street of Lyon, eastern France, on January 25, 2010. (PHILIPPE DESMAZES/AFP/Getty Images)