Hundreds of Danes rallied in Copenhagen on Wednesday in protest at a new ban on the wearing of face veils in public, accusing the government of infringing women’s right to dress as they choose.
Denmark’s parliament enacted the ban in May, joining France and other EU countries in what some politicians say is upholding secular and democratic values.The protesters, many wearing the niqab veil or the body-length burqa, began a march from the central district of Norrebro to Bellahoj police station on the outskirts of the city.
Demonstrators, often with children in town, included veiled and non-veiled Muslim women and non-Muslim Danes with their faces covered. No incidents were reported.“We need to send a signal to the government that we will not bow to discrimination and a law that specifically targets a religious minority,” said Sabina, 21, who asked that her full name not be used.
She is one of between 150 and 200 Muslim women – 0.1% of those in the country – who wear either the niqab or the burqa on a daily basis. Muslims account for about 5% of Denmark’s population of 5.7 million.Under the law, police will be able to instruct women to remove their veils or order them to leave public areas. The country’s justice minister, Søren Pape Poulsen, said officers would fine them and tell them to go home.
Fines will range from 1,000 Danish krone (£120) for a first offence to 10,000 krone for a fourth.Despite its generic wording, the legislation has widely been interpreted as discriminating against Denmark’s Muslims and violating women’s right to freedom of expression and religion.Critics, noting the tiny number of Muslim women in Denmark who actually wear the niqab, regard the law as largely a sop to increased anti-immigrant sentiment in the country.
“If the intention of this law was to protect women’s rights, it fails abjectly,” said Fotis Filippou, Amnesty International’s deputy director for Europe. “Instead, the law criminalises women for their choice of clothing, making a mockery of the freedoms Denmark purports to uphold.”
Police said none of the veiled protesters would be penalised because certain uses of face veils, such as to exercise freedom of speech as part of a peaceful protest, are exempt from the law. The justice ministry explained that the ban would focus on women forced by their families to wear veils, though it has been faulted for vagueness in stipulating who would fall foul of it.
The head of the Danish police union, Claus Oxfeldt, said he would have preferred more comprehensive guidance on how to enforce the ban. He said he was not sure, for example, whether Asian tourists wearing anti-pollution masks would be covered by the ban.
France, which has the largest Muslim community in the EU, as well as Belgium, the Netherlands, Bulgaria and the German state of Bavaria, have all imposed curbs on the wearing of face veils in public.France’s controversial 2011 ban added to a broader sense of alienation felt by many Muslims, and some evidence surfaced that it also encouraged assaults on women wearing headscarves in the street, which is still legal.