In a stunning decision, the Danes have voted to ban the Burqa and the Niqab from public places in Denmark.
A vote by the Danish Parliament on Thursday received 75 votes for and 30 votes against. Another 74 members of parliament abstained from the vote. The bill under consideration was put forward by Denmark’s center-right coalition government.
Once the law goes into effect in August, people wearing garments that cover the face in public places could be fined 1,000 kroner (about $150 bucks) for a first time offense, or 10,000 kroner (about $1,560 bucks) by the fourth offense.
An earlier version of the bill also allowed for prison sentences to punish face-covering in public, but that language was removed from the final bill.
Often called the “Burqa Ban” by its critics (and some of its supporters), this law is drawing flak for targeting Muslim women. For those of you who live in a place where women are allowed to vote and drive, a “burqa” is a full-body garment that covers the face as well as everything else. A “niqab” is just a scarf that covers the face alone.
Liberal whiners in Denmark are saying that this law, which bans a barbarous practice that contributes to the dehumanization of women throughout the Muslim world, actually “criminalizes women for their choice of clothing”.
Proponents of the Burqa Ban say, correctly, that the veil is less a conscious clothing choice by women and more an an artifact of cultural oppression of women. It hinders communication in schools and courts and it can be a security hazard as well. All this is true.
And there are a number of other responses to that “criminalizing a clothing choice” argument. I’m not a fan of governments making stupid laws that criminalize non-violent behavior. In general, I’m also ambivalent when governments use the law to impose their vision of societal norms on citizens. I think it can be either beneficial or detrimental, depending on the case.
Sure, in relatively free and open societies like Denmark (or the other Western countries that have passed similar laws) laws like these can serve to reinforce good social norms. Norms like women being afforded the same rights and the same respect as their male counterparts are good for society.
Cultural norms that force women to cover their face in public also usually force them into subservient roles within the home and within society that can lead to exploitation and violence against women. Obviously, that’s not to say that every stay-at-home mom is going to be abused or taken for granted. But societies which make domestic servitude a woman’s only opportunity don’t usually value women nearly as much as they value men.
And aside from that, societies that demand female subservience usually don’t encourage women to become educated. And when you’re not educating half your population, you’re going to find yourself slipping pretty quickly behind your rivals who are educating that half.
So, it’s probably acceptable that the Danes are rejecting a cultural practice they find abhorrent, and which they believe to be incompatible with their own beliefs about the role of women. But think about the mechanism the Danish are using to discourage that cultural practice. That same mechanism is in use in Saudi Arabia to discourage the opposite practice.
In Denmark now, if you wear too much, you can be fined. In Saudi Arabia, if you wear too little, or you leave the house without a male escort, or you are in a room alone with a man, you can be beaten or imprisoned.
These laws have different outcomes but their mechanisms are the same. Both societies are using the threat of legal retribution (although differing in severity, certainly) to impose the government’s prevailing idea about what their cultural norms should be.
I think it’s particularly interesting, too, that neither Denmark nor Saudi Arabia has much of a conception of individual liberty or religious freedom. One is a socialist state where the desires of the individual are subject to the will of the community. The other is a theocracy where personal will is outweighed by the will of the clerical elite.
Neither place sounds particularly nice. But at the end of the day, if I were a Muslim woman, I’d rather be fined a few thousand kroner for wearing a veil, than be stoned to death for not wearing one.