eurel     Données sociologiques et juridiques sur la religion en Europe et au-delà


  • 31 May 2018 : the ban on face covering

On May 31st, a majority in the Danish Parliament has adopted a ban on face covering, which in effect is and has been discussed as a ban on wearing niqab or burka.

The ban, which amends the Danish Criminal Code, comes after renewed discussions which took place in 2017 and 2018. The question of criminalizing the wearing of a burka or niqab was discussed in 2009 and 2010, but the debate quieted down after a scholarly report had concluded that a maximum of 200 women were wearing a burka or a niqab in Denmark.

There are currently no case law or reports on whether the amended article in the Criminal Code has been in use yet. The applicability of the article has been significantly limited and does not apply, where a qualifying purpose is found.

The bill that amends the Criminal Code article 134 (c) now sounds like this :

’§ 134 c. The person who in a public place wears clothing that conceals the face is punished with a fine. Subsection 2. The prohibition referred to in subsection 1 shall not apply to the covering of the face which serves a qualifying purpose. ’ (See the bill with comments, in Danish)

On the ‘qualifying purpose,’ and in the comments to the bill, the Ministry of Justice unfolds the applicability of the ban.

“3.2.3. The prohibition of wearing clothing that conceals the face, will not apply when concealing the face serves a credible purpose.

It will depend on a concrete assessment in each case of the concealing of the face, as covered by the prohibition, if it serves a qualifying purpose. In an assessment of this, emphasis will be placed on the nature of the garment, the actual use and the situation in which the garment is worn.

Outside a context where a cover of the face serves a qualifying purpose, such a cover will be prohibited. The fact that a person is on his way to or from a place or context, etc., where face covering serves a qualified purpose, does not in itself make it possible to cover the face during normal transportation thereto or therefrom.

As an example of covering the face that serves a qualified purpose, it may be mentioned that a person wearing a scarf, hat and the like for protection against cold will not be subject to the prohibition if, as the case - considering the seasons and weather conditions - must be considered as usual and reasonable attire.

As a rule, the prohibition does not include costumes and masks used in carnival, regular games, Halloween, dressing parties, sports events and the like. In addition, the prohibition does not apply for example to masks and helmets in connection with hunting, fishing, sports and the like – such as safety or camouflage equipment - if used in the usual and reasonable manner.

The prohibition does not include, for example, medical dressings and the like, due to health reasons. It can also serve a qualified purpose to cover the face in a concrete working context, if it happens in a customary and fair manner, as the case may be. This may include the use of protective or security equipment or the like, e.g. protective helmet and respiratory protection. It may also serve a qualified purpose when, for example, staff in a shop, a shopping mall, etc. is dressed in a "store mask" or the like, if done in a usual and reasonable manner.

Incidentally, covering of the face will obviously serve a qualified purpose if the cover is made in compliance with legal requirements and the like, for example, traffic law rules for the use of a helmet when driving a motorcycle etc.

To the extent that a cover of the face in itself is regarded as an expression of opinion it may be protected by freedom of speech. This should be included in the assessment of whether the cover serves a qualifying purpose.

Similarly, it will be included in the assessment whether a cover of the face occurs in a way - and in a concrete context - closely related to the exercise of religious freedom, etc. It is assumed that the covering of the face for religious reasons as a clear starting point is not prohibited when it comes to a specific religious act or the like, for example, in a religious building or in connection with a wedding or funeral ritual, etc. Outside of such concrete religious contexts - including, for example, normal transport to and from the place of a religious act -, it will not suffice to refer to the fact that a covering of the face is for religious reasons.…”

In this commentary by the Ministry of Justice, it is quite clear that circumstances to which the ban applies are limited, and there is great room for interpretation by the individual police officer – also in the light of dress-up parties, freedom of speech and freedom of religion (albeit in a narrow interpretation). In addition, it is left up to the individual officer to asses if this is at all a criminal matter or a matter for social services :

“If the police suspect that the person is subject to negative social control, for example, in connection with a breach of the ban on cover, i.e., because the person expresses compulsion or other pressure to wear face-covering clothing, then the police must assess whether there is a basis for investigating a criminal offense or whether the person should be offered help and support, and so on.”

All in all, this bill and amendment are designed – in part – to provoke and discourage the ‘Islamist elements’ and – in part – to satisfy right wing politicians and voters. Obviously, symbolic uses both of them.

Looking through the whole text of the commentary, clearly they ‘pulled the teeth’ of this particular ‘barking dog,’ long before it was ever enacted.

It is doubtful whether we will see in Denmark any serious such cases. If we do, it will be by activists – i.e. the ‘Women in Dialogue group’ who showed up in parliament wearing the full veil – who will deliberately seek to test the limits of the bill in law enforcement and in the courts.

Niels Valdemar Vinding
  • 2 March 2018 : The Mariam Mosque – a women-led mosque in Copenhagen

Local as well as international media showed up, when the (alleged) first women-led mosque in all of Scandinavia officially opened in February 2016. The opening of a new mosque is actually not very unusual in Denmark as the total number of mosques in the country has risen from approximately 115 in 2006 to approximately 170 a decade later (Kühle Lene & Malik Larsen, Moskéer i Danmark II, 2017). The obvious reason for the massive media coverage was of course that the mosque in question differentiated itself from the vast majority of Danish and European mosques by having a number of female imams leading an all-women congregation during Friday prayer. While the Mariam Mosque is the first mosque to have clear-cut female imams, it is not the first mosque in Denmark with Friday prayer exclusively for women. This title belongs to a much less-known Shiite mosque in Aarhus, the second-largest city in Denmark. The women behind this mosque had already been gathering faithful for about ten years, when the Mariam Mosque opened in 2016, and still meet several times a week to pray or listen to preaches held in turn by the all-women attendants. In the months after the opening of the Mariam Mosque, it was subject to both Muslim and non-Muslim debate – in the latter, often as an important expression of a necessary reformation of Islam, which is more in sync with Western values such as gender equality. The reception from their fellow Muslims was less supportive, though, and consisted of a combination of criticising and passively ignoring. The criticism has, revolved around the rejection of a statement made by the leading female imam, Sherin Khankan, saying that Danish mosques needed to challenge patriarchal structures and make more room for the women. Other imams, publicly known as ‘moderate’ or ‘liberal’, have also criticised the theology of the Mariam Mosque. One example of the Mariam Mosques’ non-mainstream theology is their inter-religious marriages between Muslim women and Christian or Jewish men, which, according to the majority of Muslims, is only permitted in the reverse constellation. This characteristic was partly the reason for the departure from the project, in the summer of 2017, of one of the two founding female imams (the one who held the very first preach in the mosque), due to theological disagreements. The women-led mosque has proclaimed to be deeply inspired by Sufism, also known as Islamic spiritualism.

The Mariam Mosque is situated in a large apartment next to the shopping main street in the heart of Copenhagen, made available by the well-known photographer and speaker, Jacob Holdt. Their central location does not, however, mean that the activities of the mosque include daily prayers or even weekly Friday sermons. Since the opening, the mosque has only been open for public prayer once a month, which might be partly explained by the mainstream Islamic opinion that Friday prayer is only mandatory for men, and not for women. The low frequency of activities, combined with the low number of participants (usually no more than 20 people), makes it reasonable to ask whether this is a ‘real’ mosque or not. The initiators behind the project undoubtedly perceive it as a mosque, and have from the beginning declared that in time it should not only make service for women but also for men, which is already the case in terms of other activities than Friday prayer. During their first two years, they have performed more than a dozen Islamic weddings and a handful of divorces. None of these have civic validity, though, because they have not yet obtained formal state recognition, which grants the right to perform legally recognised marriages and divorces. However, this is one of their goals in the nearest future. Some of their other activities include Islamic spiritual care and therapy, Islamic meditation also known as dhikr, and hosting visits from public schools and other institutions.

In 2017, the mosque expanded its activities by establishing an Islamic academy called MIA (the Mariam Mosque’s Islamic Academy), which offers shorter lessons in various subjects such as Islamic feminism or Islamic philosophy. The teachings are held by people both from inside and outside the Mariam Mosque network, some of them researchers from the University of Copenhagen. The academy is especially (but not exclusively) directed towards women who have shown interest in becoming female imams. In order to be taken into consideration as a future imam, the candidates have to present previous academic merits from so-called relevant studies (for instance psychology or Islamic studies) from ordinary Western universities. This example of intertwining knowledge from different types of reasoning that is normally thought of as differentiated (for instance understood as scientific vs. religious), seems to be one of the silver linings of the entire Mariam Mosque project.

Malik Larsen

D 20 juin 2018    AMalik Larsen ANiels Valdemar Vinding

CNRS Unistra Dres Gsrl

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