COPENHAGEN — Denmark’s ban on face veils in public took effect on Wednesday, setting off protests and reigniting a debate over a law that rights groups say discriminates against Muslim women.
The law, passed in May, does not specifically mention Muslim dress — it states that “anyone who wears a garment that hides the face in public will be punished with a fine” — but protesters say Muslim women are the intended target.
On Wednesday evening, women wearing the traditional Muslim face veil, known as a niqab, and full coverage burqas were joined by dozens of supporters wearing makeshift coverings and handkerchiefs tied across their faces at a protest in central Copenhagen. A simultaneous demonstration was held in the city of Aarhus.
And at the center of a protest for a woman’s right to cover up were women who didn’t. Bare legs, exposed shoulders and long blond hair mixed with head scarves and black veils.
The protest began near Mjolnerparken, a housing complex heavily populated by immigrants, which the government has described as a “ghetto” and “parallel society” because of crime and lack of integration. The protest finished with a human chain near one of Copenhagen’s main police stations.
Some carried posters with the messages, “Fingers away from my niqab” and “My clothes, my choice.”
A group called Kvinder i Dialog, which means Women in Dialogue, helped organize the demonstrations. On social media it said the new law “discriminates, criminalizes and suppresses a minority — Danish Muslim women.” Only about 200 women in Denmark are believed to wear the face veil, according to Danish researchers.
One protester, Sabina, 21, a student teacher who declined to give her last name because other members of Women in Dialogue have received threats, called the law oppressive and Islamophobic.
“I’m not going to take my niqab off, but will try to continue my education. To wear the niqab is a spiritual choice and now a sign of protest,” she said. “The only result of this law is that we’re going to stick more firmly to our faith and niqab and encourage more women to wear it.”
She said she planned to continue to protest, waiting to see when police issue the first fine. First-time offenders face fines of 1,000 Danish kroner, around $150. Fake beards, balaclavas, and other face masks are also banned.
Sabina maintained that it was her choice to wear the religious garment.
“It’s illogical to say you want to liberate women by force or fines. I refuse to believe the politicians have women’s best interests in mind,” she said.
Defenders of the law say it is a matter of public safety. Justice Minister Soren Pape Poulsen said earlier this year that it was also a matter of Danish values.
“I see a discussion of what kind of society we should have with the roots and culture we have, that we don’t cover our face and eyes, we must be able to see each other and we must also be able to see each other’s facial expressions. It’s a value in Denmark,” Mr. Poulsen said in March.
Human rights groups argue that the ban on the face veil violates the rights of Danish citizens.
Amnesty International argued that while some restrictions on wearing face veils for the purpose of public safety may be legitimate, the ban was “neither necessary nor proportionate and violates women’s rights to freedom of expression and religion.”
“All women should be free to dress as they please and to wear clothing that expresses their identity or beliefs,” Fotis Filippou, Amnesty International’s deputy Europe director, said in a statement. “This ban will have a particularly negative impact on Muslim women who choose to wear the niqab or burqa.”
Human Rights Watch has called the ban the “latest in a harmful trend.”
Denmark follows Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Bulgaria and parts of Switzerland, which have all moved to either ban or restrict where the veil can be worn.
Last year, the European Court of Human Rights upheld Belgium’s ban on the wearing of face veils in public, ruling that the country could be allowed to implement it in order to enhance people’s ability to “live together” pursuant to the “protection of rights of others.”
Martin Selsoe Sorensen reported from Copenhagen, and Megan Specia from New York.
Orignially published in NYT.