The debate over hijab in Denmark - GulfToday

The debate over hijab in Denmark

Women wearing Niqabs to veil their faces take part in a demonstration in Copenhagen, Denmark. AFP

Women wearing Niqabs to veil their faces take part in a demonstration in Copenhagen, Denmark. AFP

The Danish Commission for Forgotten Women’s Struggle, set up by Denmark’s Social Democratic Party, has recommended that the government should ban hijabs/scarves in elementary schools. It is one of the nine recommendations. The reason behind the recommendation is to combat what is being called “honour-related social control”. There has been widespread and strong protest over the recommendation in the country. Huda Makai Asghar, a ninth grader who studies in a school outside the capital, Copenhagen, said, “I have always known that we have freedom of religion in Denmark. I can wear what I want, and I want to believe in what I like. So, when I heard about the proposal, I was surprised.” Here then is an interest clash over the same value – freedom. The commission recommended the ban of hijab in the belief that the girls should have the freedom not to wear the hijab. And the counterargument is: We are wearing the hijab of our own free will, and by recommending a ban you are violating our freedom to wear what we want, believe what we want.

Iram Khawaja, associate professor at Danish School of Education at Aarhus University, said that the ban would create more problem than it would solve. She is also co-founder of Professional Psychology Network Against Discrimination, and she has been studying how children from ethnic minorities navigate Danish society. She said, “On the contrary, a ban could add to bigger issues. The girls who are already being exposed to negative social control will be put under increasing pressure.” And she added, “It is problematic to equate wearing the hijab with negative social control – there are also girls who do not wear the hijab who are exposed to negative social control.” Not all Danes seem to welcome the ban on hijab. Lone Jorgensen, principal of an elementary school with 700 students in Jutland, said, “The ban would create a law between the children and their parents, and the children would get stuck in between.”

There was a protest march by thousands on August 26, two days after the proposal to ban the hijab was made public. Midwife and activist Lamia Ibnhsain, who organised the march, called “Hands off our hijabs”, said, “I realized that our voices are invisible in society. The initial intention with the demonstration was to go to the streets and make our voices heard.” She observed, “Muslim women wearing the hijab are everywhere in Danish society. They are doctors, psychologists, bus drivers, and artists. They are part of Denmark.” She has two daughters, a 16-year-old and a nine-year-old. While the older one wears the hijab, the younger one wears when she likes.

What we are witnessing in Denmark is a serious contest between two points of view. The Danish argument has its own merits because there is an attempt to integrate the ethnic minorities into the larger Danish society. The question that arises is about the terms of integration. Do the ethnic minorities sink their identities and become part of a uniform larger identity. And given the cultural history of Europe over race relations, the integration that Danish liberals want to achieve may not be complete and invisible frictions and tensions will remain. The other viewpoint is that a pluralist society, which is indeed the fulcrum of European liberalism of the second half of the 20th century, where ethnic minorities can retain their specific identity and yet participate in the larger Danish society.

And both the viewpoints emerge from the general European discourse. The ethnic minorities are demanding the rights of freedom of choice which is at the heart of European liberal society to be themselves. It is a proposition that the majority of Danes cannot ignore.

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