Identity

Women Are Covering Their Faces in Solidarity to Protest Denmark's Veil Ban

Muslim and non-Muslim activists alike met up to prepare for a demonstration against Denmark's new “burqa ban.”

by Shani Pedersen; photos by Marie Hyld; translated by Thomas Godshalk
Aug 1 2018, 7:23pm

Last Thursday, a group of women in the Copenhagen neighborhood of Nørrebro met up to prepare for a demonstration against the face veil ban, which takes effect Wednesday August 1. 

A version of this article originally appeared on Broadly Denmark.

The colorful rooms of the Danish Islamic Society were occupied on Thursday evening with a mix of niqabs and hijabs, dreadlocks, fabrics, and poster-making materials. The organizations Women in Dialogue and Muslim Youth teamed up with the activist group Party Rebels to prepare for a masquerade-themed protest in Copenhagen on Wednesday, August 1, the same day the ban goes into effect.

In Denmark, the topic of the burqa ban and its possible variants has been discussed at length. But now it’s becoming reality.

The new law will allow police officers to issue fines of 1000 DKK (roughly $160 USD) to women covering their faces with a niqab or a burqa, and anyone else covering their face “without recognizable purpose,” according to the law. The law also says it will be up to the police to evaluate which face coverings are acceptable and which ones are not. In Austria, where a similar law has been introduced, police have interpreted the ban widely: There have even been instances of officers making people take off their scarves in the winter cold. How the Danish police will choose to enforce this law remains to be seen.

Broadly went to the protest preparations and asked the women there why they’re demonstrating today and how they feel about participating in civil disobedience over the ban.

Sabina, member of Kvinder I Dialog (Women In Dialogue)

Broadly: What brings you here today?
Sabina: I’m here today because I believe the new burqa and niqab ban is extremely discriminatory and rooted in Islamophobia. That’s why I came to show my support, and I hope I can make a difference and help make this demonstration a success.

Are you participating in Wednesday’s demonstrations as well?
Yes, I am.

How do you feel about engaging in civil disobedience?
I feel great about it, actually, even though I think it’s sad that we have to do this at all. But it is what it is. I don’t want to give up something I identify with, something I believe in and find strength and happiness in, just because the government says I should out of pure Islamophobia and hate.

Have you taken part in other public demonstrations before?
Only on May 31. That was also conjunction with the niqab ban.

The law emphasizes the importance of being able to read each other’s feelings via facial signals. What do you think about that?
I believe communication is about more than how your mouth and nose are moving. Communication is about the overall message we’re sending each other. It’s the connection you establish when talking to someone—the story you’re creating together, the relationship you’re building. So I definitely think we can communicate, even though there’s a lot of things in my face you can’t see. We already do this on a daily basis: we attend school, go to work, and have families. We’re fully functioning humans.

What do you hope comes out of the demonstration on Wednesday?
I’m not really sure what my hope is. The ideal outcome would be that the police turn a blind eye and leave us in peace, so we can live our lives wearing our niqabs. We should be sending a clear signal to the government—women, men, Muslims and non-Muslims—that we won’t put up with discrimination, whether it affects Muslims or others. And we refuse to back down.

Kaoutar Elhamss

Broadly: What brings you here today?
Kaoutar Elhamss: I believe it’s a right for these women to be able to wear whatever they want, the same way that it’s a right for people to wear very little clothing if they so choose. Just because it doesn’t affect me directly doesn’t mean I shouldn’t show up. I’d want people to show up if I lost a right, so I show up for them.

Are you coming to the demonstration on Wednesday?
Yes, I am, and I’ll be wearing a mask, because I don’t think it would make sense otherwise. The theme is a masquerade ball, and like they said at the last demonstration, we have to show some form of resistance, since we believe that they’re undermining our rights.

How do you feel about engaging in civil disobedience on Wednesday?
Civil disobedience is exactly what’s needed. That’s what it’s going to take to send the right message. I don’t see any of the other participants as criminals or bad citizens. What we’re doing is simply putting our foot down, because our democratic society isn’t behaving democratically—it’s attacking our fundamental rights.

Have you ever protested before?
Yes I have. I would protest back in the third grade if my teacher did something I didn’t like. When there were demonstrations against public education cutbacks, I was there in the trenches, too.

The law emphasizes the importance of being able to read each other’s feelings via facial signals. What do you think about that?
I see their point, but I don’t think it’s something that needs to be legislated against. It’s a personal and individual thing if people feel like they need to see my nose or mouth when I’m talking. If you talk to any of these women, you can hear in their tone of voice what kind of mood they’re in; you can see it in their eyes if they’re smiling; you can read their body language. Because they know they’re a minority, they put a lot more energy into body language than others might—precisely to avoid making other people feel like they can’t get a read on them.

What do you hope comes out of the demonstration on Wednesday?
I hope that our politicians realize that it’s our fundamental rights that are being taken away. And I hope we get support from across the board, because it’s not just about the 110-150 women participating in this. It’s also about us opposing the police getting the authority to criminalize a woman based on the way she looks.

Shasha Andersen, spokesperson for Party Rebels

Broadly: Why is your organization Party Rebels here today?
Shasha Andersen: We’re here because this is a preparatory workshop for the demonstration on August 1. The purpose of tonight’s meet-up is to make some signs and masks and meet the people we’ll be protesting with. It’s nice to be able to mingle a bit now so we’ll feel more comfortable the day of the protest.

What do you hope happens on Wednesday?
My dream scenario would be a repeal of the law—that they can see that the opposition is so great that they give up on it. I hope we also succeed in showing that it would be a really difficult law to enforce for the police, which could be another reason they might repeal it.

How do you feel about engaging in civil disobedience on Wednesday?
We’re from a left-wing activist community where civil disobedience isn’t an uncommon thing. Party Rebels has experience with this kind of protest. But we also think there will be a lot of people who show up who haven’t done this kind of thing before. We hope as many people as possible do.

Why isn’t dialogue enough?
Because it’s often difficult to get a dialogue going with politicians, and this is a pretty classic way of doing that. Politicians decide something, then a large contingent of people take to the streets in disagreement. That’s its own sort of dialogue. We believe that direct action sends a strong message—showing up in person and really showing that there’s opposition to the law.

Berivan Bicen

Broadly: What brings you here today?
Berivan Bicen: I’m here to ask some questions that I’d really like answers to—not so much about the demonstration on Wednesday, but about burqas and niqabs. I’ve read the Koran, where they’re not really talked about the same way the headscarves are, which is why I’m curious about why women wear them. I’m Muslim myself, but I don’t really feel I’ve ever gotten a clear answer on this.

What do you think about the face veil ban?
I understand both sides of it. I get why it might make people uncomfortable that they can’t see who’s behind the veil. At the same time, I understand why people are opposing the law, because it would be a bit like someone telling me I can’t wear dresses anymore, for example. I can definitely see how it would be a problem that someone’s trying to decide what you’re allowed to wear.

People are making masks today for the protesters to put on when the law takes effect on August 1. What’s your take on the situation?
I think it’s terrible that people might be issued fines just for showing up that way.

Do you think you’ll wear a mask to the demonstration?
Yeah, I think so, to show my support for these women. I’m not totally sure that I will, though. That’s part of why I came here today—to clarify some of these things. But I think it makes a lot of sense that there are other people than just those who wear niqabs who think the law is intrusive.

Miriam, member of Women In Dialogue

Broadly: What brings you here today?
Miriam: I’m here because we need to show our dissatisfaction with this law. The first thing I thought was that they’ll start by taking away our right to wear a niqab, but what’s next? I don’t even want to imagine. It’s unacceptable that my rights are being taken away—that I’ll no longer be allowed to decide how I dress. I think it’s disgusting that in 2018 we have politicians deciding what people are allowed to wear.

How do you feel about engaging in civil disobedience on Wednesday?
I have a lot of mixed feelings. I’m sad, but at the same time, I think it’s a really unfair law. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s paradoxical that we’re being made into criminals, when the reality is that we’re the ones being persecuted by this law. But I won’t consider myself a criminal just because of this.

Have you taken part in other public demonstrations before?
Yes, about seven months ago, against the ban. But it’s a relatively new thing for me to be attending protests. I’m fine with going out and demonstrating, though of course it’s frustrating that this is the reason.

The law emphasizes the importance of being able to read each other’s feelings via facial signals. What do you think about that?
I actually have a job where a lot of communication happens over the phone, so it’s never been a problem that people can’t see me and I can’t see them. With people I meet in person, they can still tell from my tone of voice if I’m happy, angry, or sad. When I’m wearing my niqab, I make great efforts to communicate in other ways, so I’ve never experienced it as a challenge to connect with the world around me.