COPENHAGEN (Reuters) - When a ban on the wearing of face veils in public took effect in Denmark on Wednesday, Sabina did not leave her niqab at home.
Instead, she joined around 1,300 Muslims and non-Muslims alike in a march through the capital Copenhagen to protest at what they saw as an infringement on freedom of religion and expression.
The Danish parliament enacted the face ban in May, joining France and some other European countries to uphold what some politicians say are secular and democratic values.
But Sabina, 21, who is studying to be a teacher, joined forces with other Muslim women who wear the veil to form Kvinder I Dialog (Women In Dialogue) to protest and raise awareness about why women should be allowed to express their identity in that way.
Wednesday’s protesting niqab wearers were joined by non-niqab-wearing Muslim women and non-Muslim Danes in face cover.
“We need to send a signal to the government that we will not bow to discrimination and a law that specifically targets a religious minority,” Sabina, said as she marched on Wednesday, asking not to be further identified for fear of harassment.
Reuters spent time with Sabina and other niqab-garbed women earlier this week for a closer look at their concerns.
“I won’t take my niqab off. If I must take it off I want to do it because it is a reflection of my own choice,” Sabina said.
“Everybody wants to define what Danish values are,” said Meryem, 20, who was born in Denmark to Turkish parents and has been wearing the niqab since before meeting her husband, who supports her right to wear it but feels life could be easier without.
“I believe that you have to integrate yourself in society, that you should get an education and so forth. But I don’t think wearing a niqab means you can’t engage yourself in Danish values,” said Meryem, who has a place to study molecular medicine at Aarhus University.
Just before heading to Wednesday’s demonstration, Ayah, 37, told Reuters: “This is not the Denmark that we know. I can’t go out when I want to...I have kids, how do I pick them up from the bus and the school and the train?
“It’s just absurd. I can’t to the things I love to do any more. I can’t go to the museum and the beach, can’t go out and take photos. I’m just going to be a prisoner in my home. But I prefer to be a prisoner in my home to taking off my niqab.”
Aicha, 29, said: “When I was little, people didn’t talk about colour and religion but now the last 10 years people are going crazy talking about colour of the skin and hating each other.”
Under the law, police will be able to instruct women to remove their veils or order them to leave public areas. Justice Minister Soren Pape Poulsen said officers would fine them and tell them to go home.
Fines will range from 1,000 Danish crowns ($160) for a first offence to 10,000 crowns for a fourth violation.
“I feel this law legitimises acts of hatred but, on the other hand, I feel people have become more aware of what is going on. I get more smiles on the street and people are asking me more questions,” said Ayah, 37.
Mathias Vidas Olsen, who makes reproductions of Viking age jewellery, is supporting the campaign against the ban by making special bracelets and giving the proceeds to Kvinder I Dialog.
“I’m not for or against the niqab,” the 29-year-old Copenhagen man said. “I’m for the right of the people to wear whatever they want whether they be a Muslim or a punk.
“I see this as the government reaching in to places they don’t belong and as a cheap hit on an already stigmatized group to score cheap political points.”
For a photo essay, click on reut.rs/2v1ZkR1
Additional reporting by Andrew Kelly, Jacob Grønholt-Pedersen and Stine Jacobsen; editing by Mark Heinrich