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 on women's right to dress as they choose.
The protest took place on the first day of the implementation of the ban.
Denmark's parliament enacted the ban in May, joining France and some other European Union countries in a bid to uphold what some politicians say are secular and democratic values.
The protesters, many wearing the niqab veil or the all-enveloping, body-length burqa, planned to march from the Danish capital’s Norrebro district to Bellahoj police station on the outskirts of the city.
Demonstrators, many with children in tow, included non-niqab-wearing Muslim women and non-Muslim Danes with 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,” Sabina (21), a niqab-garbed student, told Reuters, asking that her full name not be used.
She is one of about 150-200 Muslim women – 0.1 per cent of those in the country – who on a daily basis wear either the niqab or burqa garments covering the face or the entire body. Muslims account for about 5 per cent of Denmark’s 5.7 million population.
Under the law, police will be able to instruct women to remove their veils or order them to leave public areas. Minister for justice Soren Pape Poulsen said officers would fine those who disobeyed the law.
Fines will range from 1,000 Danish crowns ($160) for a first offence to 10,000 crowns for a fourth.
Despite its generic wording, the legislation is being widely 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 a niqab, regard the law as largely a sop to increased anti-immigrant sentiment in the Nordic country.
"If the intention of this law was to protect women's rights, it fails abjectly," said Fotis Filippou, Europe campaigns director of human rights group Amnesty International. "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 since 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 afoul of it.
Danish Police Union chief Claus Oxfeldt said he would have preferred more comprehensive guidance on how to enforce the ban.
“We need as thorough guidance as possible so we don’t end up in situations where [police officers] don’t 100 per cent know how to act,” he said.
As an example, he said he was unsure 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 some curbs on face veils in public.
France’s controversial 2011 ban added to a broader sense of alienation felt by many Muslims in the country and some evidence surfaced that it encouraged assaults in the street on women wearing legal headscarves as well. – Reuters