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Burka-less Denmark, Please. Would We Accept Women in a Collar and Leash?

Naser Khader

The following text has been translated and adapted from an article first published in Denmark’s daily newspaper Kristeligt Dagblad. As always in such cases, questions about various subtleties of interpretation or style may arise, and interested readers may wish to refer to the original Danish version, available here.

During a Danish Parliament session in 2009, I suggested a ban on the use of both the burka and niqab. This resulted in heated public discussions, which came to an abrupt halt when the Ministry for Justice decided that the proposed ban conflicted with the Danish constitution and human rights.

Earlier this month, the European Court for Human Rights determined that France’s ban on the burka and niqab does not conflict with the European Convention on Human Rights. Thus, Danish parliamentary officials were incorrectly asserting that the ban violated a clause of the Convention. . The French law is based on the belief that hiding who you are can disturb the public peace and order, and therefore, people’s faces should not be covered.

I am pleased with the French judgment and embarrassed for the Danish officials. It is quite clear that their verdict was based on what is deemed “politically correct,” rather than on a solid legal foundation. I am looking forward to hearing what the Ministry of Justice has to say about the verdict.

Furthermore, I do not agree with the claim that a burka and niqab ban would conflict with Danish constitutional principles. A ban can only be in disagreement with the constitutional paragraph on religious freedom if it is concerned with a ban on a neutral mainstream religious symbol. But neither a burka nor a niqab are a neutral mainstream religious symbol. Quite the contrary. A study done in seven largely Muslim-dominated countries (i.e. Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, etc.) found that only 10% of the population preferred that women wear a burka or niqab.

Contrary to popular belief, the burka and niqab have nothing to do with Islam. Egypt’s former Grand Mufti, Sheikh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, has publicly wondered why women should wear a burka or niqab at all, when it is not permitted in Mecca and Medina during the pilgrimage? If it is not permitted during the most holy period, in the most holy place, why do it anywhere else? Tantawi was vehemently against the use of the burka and niqab.

Although I identify as a liberal, I still support the ban on the burka and niqab. While some liberals may criticize political officials who support this ban, they must be reminded that liberalism entails protecting everyone’s rights including those who need special protection. Thus, women’s rights take priority over religious freedom. In order to protect women’s rights, this ban can be introduced to prevent a violation of such rights.

While it should be understood that my proposal for this ban is the exception to my liberal beliefs, I am also a “value conservative.” In my opinion, it is acceptable to believe that certain issues have more value than others, and sometimes we need the state to assert the good from the bad. A woman’s freedom has more value than a cultural/religious symbol; both burka and niqab are strongly oppressive. When men begin to wear the burka or niqab, I will no longer view it as oppressive.

I would never prevent anyone from voicing an opinion, but the burka and niqab are not opinions, they are actions. To wear a burka/niqab is an aggressive action. Therefore, this ban is not an attack on limiting the freedom of speech, but instead focuses on limiting oppressive actions.

Critics may argue that most women voluntarily choose to cover themselves, but my belief is that the majority is forced. In some situations, there needs to be limits to the “freedom of choice.” How would people react if a man started walking his wife – voluntarily – in a collar, on a leash, and treated her like a dog? Would we, as an open democratic society, actually accept that? Could such an action be justified in the name of freedom of religion? As previously stated, we need to limit the free choices of the few women who do choose to wear the burka/niqab, in order to protect the many, who are forced. This discussion is similar to the debate about forced marriage, and this was why the 24 year rule was adopted. We limited the choices of many individuals in order to protect the few who were being forced into marriages.

In Denmark, we no longer accept polygamy, no matter how voluntary it is. Nor do we allow female circumcision. The state gets involved with people wearing seatbelts in their cars, and with children and their bike helmets. Yet, the government actively avoids a ban against a female oppression symbol. It does not make sense.

In an open society, we should demand to be able to see the faces of our fellow citizens. A ban on burkas and niqabs is an important signal to send to those who believe in oppressing women’s rights. While it may be difficult to enforce the new rules, it does not mean that they should not come to fruition. Although many may break the rules, this does not mean that the ban will not make a difference for those who are being continually oppressed in our society.

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