Last week Denmark’s coalition government agreed to a formal vote on whether to ‘ban the burqa’. Apparently, a majority of Danes are willing to support such a ban.
Another fact: the majority of Danes have never had a conversation with a woman who wears a burqa.
In an ideal world the women effected by this ban would be central to the ongoing debate. So far, they are not. Coverage I have seen in both Danish media, and English language media worldwide is more likely to quote politicians involved than the women themselves. I have no intention on writing about what the experience of wearing hijab or veil is like, or of trying to convince people of its virtues or its faults. As a white non-muslim that is not my place. If you can read Danish this is an excellent interview with a woman who wears a niqab, and I urge you to read it.
Before we start on why this is a terrible-horrible-no-good-very-bad idea, let’s cover what this ban actually means, and who it effects. While the ban is named a ‘burqa-ban’ it is called so just because the western media thinks it is fun to misuse terms for the sake of catchy alliteration. More accurately it is a niqab ban. Burqa is a full gown, covering the head with a mesh for eyes, and is unheard of here. Niqab is a full veil with slits for the eyes, and while more common, is also, virtually unheard of here.
So, who is actually affected? One difficulty with this is that we don’t actually require people to register themselves as niqab wearers. Aarhus, my home city, has a large Muslim population. In 2009 a report estimated 18,000 Muslim inhabitants, and of that 20-40 women wear niqab. If that figure was extrapolated to the whole of Denmark then that would give an upper estimate of 400 women, in a population of 5.5 million. That’s an absolute maximum. The actual figure of niqab wearers is believed to be much lower. The concluding estimate of that same report was only approximately 100-200 women in Denmark wear niqab.
All this parliamentary time, and media time, is devoted to restricting the rights of a tiny minority of women. We should not have doubts about this. This ban is not about protecting women.
Now, you might be thinking, surely as a feminist you object to the treatment of women in parts of the Middle East? Don’t you object to the way women are forced to cover up? Or not granted freedom of movement? Well, yes. I do object to that. But, this ban isn’t about women in the Middle East. This ban is about what women living in Denmark are wearing. I object to any women being forced to wear any form of hijab. In the same way I object to aspects of Christianity’s purity culture and the demands placed on women there. Or the way I object to women’s clothing choices being routine evidence in sexual assault cases. I object to any law in which the burden of compliance falls solely on women, because then the issue becomes misogyny.
There a million ways the rights of women are infringed upon in our society and being forced to cover up is only one of them. In the absence of any evidence that coercion is the case for the niqab wearers in Denmark I do not see how forbidding its use will free anyone.
Any attempt to control what women wear is an attack on women’s freedoms
When one of the working partners in legislation think schoolgirls should be forbidden from attending school wearing headscarves, you should be questioning what kind of freedoms you are creating. The Danish People’s Party argue that teenagers are not able to understand the ramifications of their decisions. Isn’t experimentation with how you look the whole point of being a teenager? Like, isn’t everyone entitled to make questionable choices as a teen? There are many things teenagers can be doing that are worse than wearing headscarves.
Women in Denmark are free to dress how they choose. Some women have chosen to wear niqab. If that is their free choice then so be it. If it is not their free choice, then how does the ban help? You do not free the oppressed with further marginalization. In a truly tolerant society we must make room to tolerate difference. Otherwise it is akin to saying “Look, I’m giving you freedoms! Here are your freedoms! Enjoy your freedoms! WHY AREN’T YOU USING YOUR FREEDOMS THE WAY I TOLD YOU TO?!”
Mattias Tesfaye, an MP with the Social Democrats, another party supporting this ban, is quoted in DR saying:
Jeg bliver også mega provokeret, når jeg ser en kvinde komme gående i en burka. Ikke så meget af kvinden, men mere hvad det er et udtryk for. Jeg betragter det egentlig som et slags fængsel.
I also find it provocative, when I see a woman walking along in a burqa. Not so much the woman, but more what it is an expression of. I see it as a type of prison.
Well, somebody just get this the guy a white horse and some shining armour.
That last sentence right there. I see it as a type of prison.
How many times do women have to say it? How we choose to dress isn’t about you. We Westerners are so convinced of our tolerance that it is easy to turn a blind eye to our intolerance. I am sure that Mattias Tesfaye believes in equality for women. I am sure he believes that he is freeing women. I’m sure he thinks of himself as an ally. In this circumstance at least, he is wrong.
Equality isn’t something given to us at men’s largesse. Equality is something we have whether you like it or not. Equality is when women don’t need your approval for how they dress, or behave. Equality is when we can make our own choices without regard for how you perceive them.
Denmark is generally considered forward-thinking in areas related to gender equality. It is further advanced than many countries when it comes to gender equality. That doesn’t mean that it is perfect. That doesn’t mean that its citizens are universally enlightened as to what equality means. In a society that has historically been very homogeneous, it also doesn’t mean that people here are very skilled at navigating multicultural societies, or understanding foreign cultures without ‘othering’ them.
This is about immigration and to what degree the Danish population will accept Islamic values in the country they perceive as belonging to them.
Tolerance has long been considered a cornerstone Danish value. Sometimes it is tolerance with limits. It is a tolerance that says as long as you look more or less Danish, and act more or less Danish then we will tolerate whatever goes on behind the closed doors of your home. The niqab is so very, very undanish, so udansk that many people find the mere idea of its presence – intolerable.
That is what Danish law makers have chosen to pick on. The most visible reminder of a people and way of life that exists in Denmark, and yet somehow remains udansk.
Jakob Ellemann-Jensen a spokesperson for one of the governing coalition parties The Liberals, is quoted in DR, the state broadcaster, saying:
Livet går videre, og det skal det også, for vi skal kunne fungere i dagligdagen, og vores børn skal stadig kunne klæde sig ud til fastelavn. Så ro på.
Life will go on, and that is because we must be able to manage in our daily life, and our children must still be able to dress up for Festelavn (Carnival). So calm down.
Did you actually think telling people to calm down helps? Have you ever met a feminist?
The point is not that we really think you are trying to ban Batman costumes, it is the hypocrisy of banning face coverings without actually banning face coverings. Why do you get to decide which circumstances are socially appropriate for people to cover their faces, and which not? And while Ellemann-Jensen might think ‘life goes on’ the very point of this ban is that for the women effected life won’t go on as normal. Their life will change. So, no Ellemann-Jensen, you don’t get to tell us to ‘Calm Down’.
I feel a lot of Danes are quite convinced by their existing reputation that they are the good guys. They look to America and see a stripping of rights from people of colour, and the disabled, and women. They think they are doing better than that, but to me it only goes to show how easily and quickly things can change. Denmark is currently one of the most equitable nations on earth, and as for the Danish far-right goes, historically they have not been nearly so nasty as some of their neighbours. Being the “good guy” doesn’t mean that they are above mistakes. Being the “good guy” doesn’t mean any choice you make is a good one. Being the “good guy” relatively speaking doesn’t mean there aren’t signs we should be concerned.
The far-right Danish People’s Party had their best election results at the last general election. Since then a new, even further right-wing, party has formed –The New Right. In our neighbouring Germany the far-right AfD received a record 13% of the vote. A number of European countries are enacting similar burqa bans. In a time of geo-political instability in the Middle East, and with the following record numbers of refugees fleeing into Europe, politicians are mainstreaming Islamophobic views.
Take Islam out of it, then the question comes down to this. Do you think it is acceptable to take rights away from a small religious minority?
If your answer to this is “Yes” then I believe you can no longer call yourself a free, and tolerate society.
If your answer is “No” then now is the time to step up.
Burkaforbud? Nej, tak.