Aug 19, 2018 - Politics & Policy

Between the lines: Europe's burqa bans

Veiled protestors hold signs in Copenhagen

Demonstrators protest a ban on the wearing of face veils at the Black Square in Copenhagen, Denmark on August 1, 2018. Photo: Davut Colak/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Hundreds of veiled demonstrators gathered in Copenhagen earlier this month to protest against Denmark's "burqa ban," a law enacted in May that allows police officers to fine women who wear the Muslim niqab or body-length burqa in public areas.

Between the lines: Denmark joined France, Belgium, Bulgaria, Austria and the Netherlands as European countries that have instituted some form of a nationwide ban on face veils, per the WashPost. Justifications for the burqa ban range from it being a matter of female dignity to a matter of public safety, as the wearer's identity would be concealed in the event of a security threat. But critics say the ban is being used as a pretext for discrimination against Muslims amid growing resistance to Europe's liberal immigration policies.

The backdrop: There are several types of headscarves worn by Muslim women, but all are generally considered to be symbols of modesty and privacy, per the BBC.

  • The hijab commonly refers to a headscarf that covers the head and neck but keeps the face clear.
  • The niqab is a face veil that leaves the eyes clear.
  • The burqa is the most concealing of all Islamic veils, covering the entire face and body and leaving only a mesh screen for the wearer to see through.

By the numbers: France, which has the largest Muslim population in Europe, became the first country to implement a nationwide ban in 2011.

  • At the time, there were 4.7 million Muslims living in France, accounting for 7.4% of the population, according to The Conversation.
  • Research documents used to support the law stated that 1,900 women wore burqas in 2011, comprising .04% of the French Muslim population.
  • But a report from the U.K.'s Channel 4 found that the original number was actually 367, or .001% of the Muslim population, and that the internal security services were asked to count again because the figure was deemed too low.

This raises the question of why legislators would bother to pursue a ban that affects so few people. At the time France's law was enacted, then-president Nicolas Sarkozy declared what has since become a major point of contention among those involved in Europe's immigration debate: that certain Islamic practices are fundamentally incompatible with Western values.

"The problem of the burqa is not a religious problem, it's a problem of liberty and women's dignity. It's not a religious symbol, but a sign of subservience and debasement. I want to say solemnly, the burqa is not welcome in France. In our country, we can't accept women prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity. That's not our idea of freedom."
— French President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2011

The big picture: Legally-mandated assimilation has become a trend in Europe, with the latest example being Denmark's plan to force "ghetto" children to undergo lessons in Danish values for 30 hours a week. It's a response to the challenges faced by countries who are seeing a large influx of immigrants cross their borders — and one that could become more mainstream given the rise of far-right populism across the continent.

Go deeper