Q&A: How will Denmark's 'burqa ban' affect Muslim women?

On and after August 1, Muslim women in Denmark will no longer be able to wear face-covering Islamic garments outside of their homes unless they want to face being fined.

A law prohibiting “anyone who wears a garment that hides the face in public” that passed on May 31 will impact anyone wearing face-covering garments. However, it has been widely reported as a ban on burqas and niqabs given that Muslim women wearing Islamic face veils will be directly affected.

Read WikiTribune’s backgrounder to the issue here. 

They will either have to leave their homes without the face veil, spend less time in public spaces, or rebel against the ban and face punishment.

Researchers estimate the ban will prohibit only a small number of Muslim women – the number of niqab-wearers in Denmark was estimated to be no more than 200 in a 2013 study – but it will have negative consequences for them even so, critics of the ban say.

Meanwhile, politicians across multiple parties in Denmark’s coalition government anticipate the ban and what they see as a move towards a more integrated Danish society that puts Western values first after an influx of immigrants from the Middle East.

As part of our story on Denmark’s “burqa ban”, WikiTribune spoke with Sabina Bint Yousuf, a 21-year-old Muslim woman born in Denmark who sometimes wears the niqab.

She is a member of Kvinder I Dialog (Women in Dialogue), a women’s organization that advocates for the wearing of the niqab and campaigns against the ban. WikiTribune spoke with her in a voice call on Whatsapp.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

WikiTribune: Do you wear the niqab?

Sabina Bint Yousuf: I do, I do wear it sometimes actually. I don’t wear it every day because I also study and it is not allowed at my university, so that’s why I can’t wear it all the time, but I do wear it some days. Whenever I feel like wearing it, I’ll wear it.

WikiTribune: What kind of days would those be? What makes you want to wear it on those days?

Sabina Bint Yousuf: It actually depends a lot on how I feel that day, because I see niqab as a way for me to connect with God, I see it as an act of worship, I see it as a reminder of God. So whenever I feel like wearing it that day, especially for example, when I’m not going to university or something, then I wear it.

A photo of a Muslim woman wearing the niqab in Denmark
“This is about sending a signal and restricting my religious beliefs and practice,” Sabina Bint Yousuf says about the ban on face-coverings in Denmark. Photo by: Ayah/Women in Dialogue. Used with permission from Women in Dialogue

WikiTribune: What are the rules with wearing the niqab at universities in Denmark?

Sabina Bint Yousuf: It’s actually there are some universities which it is allowed to wear the niqab, the full face wear, and then there’s some universities where it isn’t allowed. The government has given the choice to every university to choose for themselves.

That was before the ban. So now after the 1st of August, it will be illegal to wear it everywhere.

WikiTribune: So how’s the ban going to effect your life after August 1?

Sabina Bint Yousuf: It’s actually going to effect my life in a very negative way because I really feel that this law is discriminating first of all, and I feel that this specifically targets me, me as a religious minority living in the country.

Also, I feel like whenever the government and whenever politicians, they make these legislations, they make these laws, and whenever they talk about a minority in such a negative way, that it sends a signal to the population that it is actually okay for you to maybe act negatively towards these people.

It can actually be a bit scary as well because me and a lot of the other women who wear the niqab I know, just since October last year when they started talking about this ban, they have had some very bad experiences.

People would stop them in the street, taking pictures of them, threatening to call the police on them, even though it wasn’t illegal at that time. So I think the only result of such a ban will be maybe an increase in even more hate crimes, especially towards Muslim women.

WikiTribune: Have you had any hate crimes directed at you?

Sabina Bint Yousuf: I mean not anything more than a couple of people saying some stuff or swearing at me, but I know some people who have had really, really bad experiences. One of my friends, a man tried to push her in front of a train at a train station. I have other friends of mine who have had their hijab with a niqab pulled of their faces. So I’m very thankful that I haven’t experienced anything like that myself, but I know people who have.

WikiTribune: How did that make your friend feel after being nearly pushed in front of a train, and how does it make you feel now?

Sabina Bint Yousuf: She was actually very traumatized for a very long time because she was walking with her children. She says even to this day, her son who’s around seven years old now, still remembers that experience. He still talks about it sometimes. So it’s actually very traumatizing when someone does this to your mother, or even to yourself, that you have to experience stuff like that every time you go outside of your house.

‘Some women took it off. Not because they wanted to, but because they felt forced to’ – Sabina Bint Yousuf

WikiTribune: Do you think that might get worse after the ban?

Sabina Bint Yousuf: Yes, I really do. Whatever politicians … it’s like they create this racist discourse, and what does that do? That can encourage people to act upon it. So I do believe that we have already here in Denmark, looking at the statistics, we already have an increase in hate crimes where the targets are Muslims. Whenever you make bans or legislations like this, I mean, it will only feed that even more.

WikiTribune: Will more Muslim women have to stay at home, or do you think you and some of your friends will stop wearing the niqab? How are you going to respond?

Sabina Bint Yousuf: I think people only have three ways of responding to this, and this was actually also what happened in France.

Some women took it off. Not because they wanted to, but because they felt forced to. Some women, they kept it on and they just stayed inside their houses. They didn’t went out. Then there were those women who actually faced the ban and went out wearing the niqab who experienced discrimination, hate crimes and fines. I think here in Denmark, we only have these three choices as well.

As a woman wearing the niqab, and also as a member of Kvinder I Dialog, I will not encourage anyone to take it off because I do not want anyone to back down and be oppressed.

I would either encourage women to just keep on living their life as they do and not take off their niqab, because we have to stand in the face of this injustice that we experience. That would be my main message to everyone: keep it on, even though I do understand that may be difficult and also a bit scary.

A photo of a woman wearing a niqab protesting for Muslim women's rights with a sign reading "Stop bothering Muslims" in Danish
“Stop bothering Muslims.” A Women in Dialogue protester demonstrating for Muslim women’s rights in Denmark. Photo by: Ayah/Women in Dialogue. Used with permission of Women in Dialogue

WikiTribune: Is women in dialogue working to protest against the ban?

Sabina Bint Yousuf: Yes we are, definitely. Just because they got the majority of the votes does not in any way mean that we want to accept this. So yeah, we will protest and we’re going to have a huge protest on the 1st of August, it’s the first day of the ban. So yeah, and we will keep protesting.

This ban even gave us more strength and determination to keep our identity, to hold on to our identity, to hold on to our beliefs and it just made us even stronger. So yeah, we will protest as long as we have to.

WikiTribune: Did you grow up a practising Muslim?

Sabina Bint Yousuf: I’ve always come from a family who has knowledge about Islam and has knowledge about the religion, who did some of the practical stuff like praying and fasting, but there wasn’t actually more to that. It was when I got older and I actually decided to look into my religion even more, try to do some soul searching maybe, and then I just fell in love with my religion. I just thought that this is something that I want to practice, this is something for me, it gives me peace, it gives me joy, so yeah. So a lot of it was actually from studying myself.

WikiTribune: So what do you say to those people who support the ban, who say that the niqab is oppressive and it doesn’t adhere to Danish values? And what do you say to those politicians who say that?

Sabina Bint Yousuf: I would really say to those politicians that they are ignorant and I would really love to hear what are their arguments for saying that. What are their arguments for saying that we are oppressed? If we actually were oppressed women, we would not have gone to national TV, we would not have gone to radio stations, we would not have gone to debates and on the streets fighting for our right to wear this if we were really oppressed.

Also, in 2009 the University of Copenhagen made a report ordered by the government, looking into the whole case of whether or not the Muslim women are oppressed or are forced to wear the niqab, and the conclusion of the whole report was that no women in Denmark wearing the niqab is either being forced to wear it or is oppressed, rather they have chosen to wear it. So what is their arguments based upon? I mean, really, it really doesn’t make and sense to me at all.

Women wearing the niqan protesting against a ban in Copenhagen
A protest by women’s association Kvinder I Dialog (Women In Dialogue) in Denmark against Islamophobia and banning women from wearing face veils. Photo by: Women in Dialogue, used with permission

I really don’t get it. I don’t think anyway that this ban is about women or helping oppressed women, because what is the logic of helping oppressed women by giving them fines or by oppressing them even more? It doesn’t make any sense at all. I don’t believe that this is about women at all, I truly believe that this is about sending a signal and this is about restricting my religious beliefs and the practice of my religious beliefs.

If this was only about the niqab, then how can it be that the same day they got a majority of the votes, one of the representatives of the Danish People’s Party went to national TV saying that the next step is a hijab ban.

So saying that this is about women or oppressed women, I don’t believe that really. I don’t believe that at all.

WikiTribune: So after August 1, you’re going to protest. What do you think’s going to happen after that?

Sabina Bint Yousuf: I believe that they are trying to make us invisible. They are trying to force the Muslim women out of the social sphere. What we’re going to do is that we’re going to be even more visible, we’re going to make our voices even more heard.

We’re just going to protest, we’re going to go to debates, we’re going to challenge these prejudices that they have towards us and we’re going to challenge these politicians, which we have done for months now.

We’re going to keep wearing our niqab with pride and not take it off. We’re going to encourage even more women actually, to wear the niqab and hold on to their Islamic identity, because they’re already talking about a hijab ban.

WikiTribune: Some people who support the ban talk about defending Danish values. What would you say are Danish values?

Sabina Bint Yousuf: Actually I don’t even know what Danish values is, because if the Danish values are speaking the language, understanding the culture, educating yourself, living as a peaceful, contributing citizen, then all of us Muslim women, all of us who are wearing the niqab are Danish, because we have these Danish values. We understand the culture, we speak the language, more of us are born in the country. We study, we work.

I don’t even know what are these Danish values that they are talking about. Do we have to eat pork? Is that the Danish value you’re looking for? So I don’t understand.

All of us are Danish and we can be Danish without actually looking like each other or living in this homogenous society that these politicians are trying to create.

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