Burka ban in Denmark: The women facing fines for what they choose to wear

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Boris Johnson’s recent comments about burkas, which have left him under investigation by the Conservatives, were made in response to Denmark’s new ban on the face covering.

Sky’s Europe correspondent Michelle Clifford has travelled to the country to talk to women who are now breaking the law because of what they wear.

In a car park in Copenhagen I meet Sabina.

She has the bright eyes of a young woman and, except for the hands, that is all I can see of her.

This 21-year-old Muslim who was born and bred in Denmark is wearing a niqab – a form of Islamic dress which covers her body and controversially her face in defiance of a ban in Denmark.

“I made the choice to wear the niqab two years ago,” she says. “It was my choice. It makes me feel humbled before God. I see it as part of my faith and now it has become a part of my identity. Which is why I feel so strongly about it.”

And she wears it speaking to me now as a law breaker. She risks being stopped by the police and fined every time she goes out in public wearing her chosen form of dress.

But she is defiant, saying: “It has now also become part of the protest against this ban.”

Sabina is gathering with other niqab-wearing women outside a police station in the capital to protest against a new law that prohibits the wearing of any “garment that covers the face in public”.

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It’s being called the “burka ban”, even by many of the politicians who voted it in, reflecting the fact that it will mainly target the more extreme forms of Islamic dress.

The women here see the law as an attack on their fundamental freedom to practise Islam the way they choose.

As they gather, they are joined by many non-Muslims wearing masks, animal head costumes and other fancy dress items to mock the legislation which came into force earlier this month.

The police stand by but do not intervene as they did recently, fining a women for covering her face in public.

In truth, many officers are worried about how to implement the ban.

Under the law, someone wearing a mask to a party is technically as guilty as a woman shielded by the cloth of a niqab or burka.

But officers are coming under pressure to act and few voices are louder than that of Kenneth Kristensen Berth – a politician with the right-wing Danish People’s Party which has pushed for a ban on face veils for years.

He insists the niqab and burka set women apart from Danish society.

Using language reminiscent of Boris Johnson’s recent remarks likening women wearing Muslim face veils to letter-boxes and bank robbers, he pours scorn on the clothing.

“There are a lot of places where you can go and wear a niqab if you want,” he says, as he suggests women move to Saudi Arabia.

“Where it is more or less natural to do it. But it’s not natural in Denmark to walk around looking like a living tent.”

At other times in our conversation he likens women in the clothing to ghosts and insists they represent an extreme form of Islam which should be feared.

And he says the ban will stop Denmark becoming like parts of the UK.

“I think it’s absolutely crucial to have a burka ban otherwise we will end up like London where we have niqab all around,” he adds.

Those are certainly strong – many would say highly offensive – words, and there are plenty of people who accuse him of being anti-Islamic.

But he and his party were not alone in backing the legislation which ended the right to wear the niqab or burka in public.

When the Dutch parliament followed other EU countries including France and Belgium in introducing the ban, many MPs justified the move by citing security concerns, claiming anyone could be hiding behind a face veil.

Others insisted the strict dress code does not integrate women into society.

We travelled to the ethnically diverse area of Norrebro in the Danish capital, where many Muslims live, and even there we couldn’t find anyone who spoke in favour of wearing the niqab (the burka really does not feature in Denmark).

The truth is the clothing is worn by a tiny minority of Muslim women – estimated to be fewer than 150 in Denmark.

Does that mean people support the ban? Not the people we spoke to.

Most, including women wearing Muslim head dress but not face cover, said it was still an individual’s right to choose.

Some non-Muslims called the ban “stupid”. Some said open discussion to persuade women not to wear the garments was needed – not a law.

And that latter sentiment is echoed by Human Rights campaigners including Jacob Mchangama-Justitia who condemns what he calls the criminalising of women.

He tells me: “I personally do not like the face veil. I think it is representative of misogyny and religious extremism.

“But a woman who chooses that of her own free will should have the right to offend the deeply held values of Danish citizens, so I think it is a restriction of freedom of religion and expression that is not fit for a liberal democracy.”

There are plenty in Danish society who disagree and who claim women are forced into covering up.

Sabina insists that claim is nonsense. And adds that if people think the ban will help with integration the strategy will backfire.

Many niqab wearers, she says, will now isolate themselves for fear of being stopped by the police.

Others will become more defiant. Some women are even threatening to start wearing veils which they never did before in protest at the new law.

It could be a tough time to be a police officer in Denmark.