Denmark decided in May to ban women from wearing burqas and niqabs in the public space. In response, former UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson started a small scandal with his comments in a column written for the Daily Telegraph.
While Johnson wrote that he does not support the Danish burqa ban, he caused a fired storm by describing the Islamic dress as “weird” and “ridiculous.” He also said women who wear the burqa or niqab look like “letter boxes” and “bank robbers.” Prime Minister Theresa May responded to Johnson’s comments by assuring that no such “burqa ban” would be coming to the UK. The Danish burqa ban is contentious, but it is hardly the first law of its kind. Read on for a list of countries where the burqa is banned.
Burqas and Niqabs, What’s the Difference?
Burqas and niqabs are often treated as the same, but they are slightly different. A burqa is a kind of shapeless covering that encompasses the woman’s entire body. Not only does it prevent the shape of a woman’s body from being seen, it also covers the woman’s entire face, including her eyes. Women are able to see through a piece of mesh around the eyes. The burqa, or burka, is commonly seen in Afghanistan and was mandated for all women under Taliban rule.
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The niqab, on the other hand, covers most of the face, but allows the eyes of the woman to be seen. Sometimes the eyes are also covered with a thin screen. The niqab is usually black and sometimes accompanied by gloves that prevent the woman’s hands from being seen and an abaya, or full length loose fitting gown. It is the Islamic head covering most commonly worn in Saudi Arabia.
Unlike the niqab and burqa, the hijab does not cover the entire face or body of a woman. A hijab is a simple headscarf worn to cover the hair as a sign of modesty and devotion. It is the more common choice for Muslim women living in Western countries.
Danish Burqa Ban
The Danish burqa ban went into effect on August 1st 2018. Although it has been referred to as a burqa ban, thanks to the catchy alliteration, the law actually bans the burqa and the niqab on the grounds that they cover a woman’s face. Muslim women are still allowed to wear hijabs and other forms of covering that do not completely obscure their face.
The legislation imposes a fine of 1,000 kroner ($156) for anyone who cover their face in public. The Danish government argues faces must be clearly seen in public for safety reasons. Although the legislation makes no mention of Islam, reading, ”anyone who wears a garment that hides the face in public will be punished with a fine” the law has been seen as discriminatory and led to protests across the Scandinavian country.
In 2011, a similar law came into effect in France, also banning the burqa and the niqab. Proponents of the legislation argued that full facial coverings were a security risk as they prevented people from being easily identifiable. They also argued that full facial coverings prevent communication and integration into French society.
Additionally, they argued, niqabs and burqas violate the norms of religious life in France. While in the US, citizens are guaranteed the freedom of religion, the French are guaranteed a freedom from religion, or laïcité. Because of this policy, religious symbols are often banned from the public space in general.
The burqa ban also imposes a fine of 30,000 euro and one year in prison for anyone who forces a woman to wear the burqa.
With 5 million Muslims living in France, France has the largest Muslim population in Europe.
France’s northern neighbor, Belgium, also imposed a so-called burqa ban in 2011. The ban was imposed based on similar justification. Shortly after the law came into effect, two Muslim women brought cases against Belgium to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). The court ultimately upheld Belgium’s right to ban the burqa in the public sphere. It has also upheld the right for employers to ban the burqa, assuming they also ban other religious or political symbols from the workplace.
In 2017, Austria introduced similar measures amid a general crackdown against migrants and illegal immigration. The government argues that the law requiring everyone to be clearly identifiable in public is a safety measure meant to prevent terrorism and crime. While the Danish burqa ban made exception for face coverings worn during protests, the Austrian law makes no exceptions, leading to the arrest of those wearing outlandish costumes and scarves covering their faces.
Bulgaria passed a burqa ban in 2016. The measure, led by the nationalist Patriotic Front coalition, fines anyone wearing face coverings in public on the grounds of public safety. The who do so face a fine of 770 euro and the loss of government benefits.
Sharing a border with Turkey, Bulgaria has a well established Muslim community dating back hundreds of years. Roughly 10% of the population of Bulgaria identifies as Muslim, most of which are ethnic Turks. However, very few of these Muslim women wear full facial coverings.
This past June, the Netherlands introduced a law banning burqas and niqabs from the public spaces like government buildings, schools, hospitals, and public transport. The law is more nuanced than its Austrian counterpart. Exemptions are made for face coverings on the street, otherwise helmets and face coverings for bikers would be penalized under the law.
The controversial leader of the far-right Freedom Party, Geert Wilders, celebrated the ban on Twitter, “Finally, 13 years after a majority in the Dutch Parliament voted in favour of my motion to ban the burqa, it became law yesterday!#stopislam #deislamize #freedom.”
Women have been banned from wearing full facial coverings in the African country of Chad after two suicide bombings in 2015. Egyptian lawmakers have also considered introducing a burqa ban, while burqa laws have already been introduced in parts of Niger, Cameroon, and the Congo.