Harold Macmillan is rumoured to have answered a question about what causes governments to get blown off course with “events“. Maybe the Danish Conservatives will take some solace from this as one sentence (or rather two sentences, to be precise) in the party’s paper on integration policy blasted everything else the party tried to present into oblivion and opened a very fascinating brawl between Conservatives, Liberals and the Danish People’s Party.
The sentences (part of the section “countering religious pressure”) were these:
Vi vil arbejde for et forbud imod burkaer. Familierne skal give pigerne og kvinderne frihed til selv at bestemme. Det skal også stå klart for familien, hvilke signaler en burka sender til det omgivne (sic!) samfund.
Or in English:
We want to work for a prohibition on burqas. Families must give girls and women the freedom to decide for themselves. It must also be made clear for families what signals a burqa sends to the surrounding society.
So, what went wrong here?
The first point is that the burqa ban was only a minor part of the party’s initiative.1 If you bother to check the published paper, you will find a lot of proposals covering (sorry!) education policy, labour market policy and some parts of civil law. An immediate impression is that some proposals are very interesting (how do we make certain types of careers interesting for people with an immigrant background) while others are politically uncontroversial but technically complicated (housing) – and then there was the minefield of religion. So, somehow the party and its spokesman on integration policy Naser Khader (ex-Social Liberal, ex-New Alliance, ex-Liberal Alliance) failed to communicate exactly what place the proposal had in the general policy and exactly what the party meant by “work for a prohibition”.
It was also obvious that the party leadership hadn’t made sure that the government would be able to react to the proposal. The integration minister is a Liberal, in case anybody should have forgotten. Finally, nobody among the Conservatives apparently remembered the brouhaha surrounding last year’s headscarf brawl which led to the adoption of a law banning judges from wearing “religious symbols”. Anything touching on Islam and Danish values was and is bound to trigger the Danish People’s Party – and sure enough: The party reacted by opening a chicken game and calling the Conservatives’ bluff on the burqa. Note by the way, that DF writes that it wants “a ban on religious dressing up (udklædning) in the public sector” in its press release. Needless to say, DF concentrates on bans and punishments as the instruments of integration policy, deliberately ignoring the softer proposals and instruments.
Actually, things took a nasty turn when the party leader and deputy prime minister Lene Espersen had to formally disown the proposal – if DF presents a bill banning the wearing of burqas and niqabs in public spaces, the government will vote against it – while a Conservative MP announced her opposition to the proposal. Laurel and Hardy couldn’t have made a finer mess.
But what about the issue? The paper places the burqa/niqab ban in the context of family policy and the underlying assumption seems to be that families (men) pressure women into wearing burqas or niqabs. This may be the wrong approach in this case (forced marriages is another matter – we have sufficient examples of “honour killings” to prove that families with a Middle Eastern or Pakistani background can be very oppressive): We should remember that the Arab world and to some extent Pakistan during the last century has gone through a transition from traditional societies via nationalism (failed)2 and socialism (failed) to some kind of Islamist revival, so Islamism (and the corresponding dress) is a much a political as a religious or social phenomenon. It is perfectly possible that women who adopt a more or less extreme form of “Islamic” dress do this as a conscious political and religious statement. In Western Europe women used to be more, not less socially conservative than men – it is only in the last forty or so years that European women have turned left. Why should women with a Middle Eastern or Pakistani background be less susceptible to religious influences than their European counterparts? We shouldn’t rule out the role played by peer pressure by groups of (female) friends, either.
It would be reasonable to see the adoption of extreme forms of clothing as an expression of extreme religious or political views, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that a legal ban or even direct political intervention is the right instrument to choose. With regard to the legal aspects, I will point to Jacob Mchangana’s blog (in Danish, not sure how it survives the translation in Google Translate or Babelfish). His argument is pretty close to the one, I would make.
By the way: I have met a woman (?) wearing a niqab once. In a supermarket in Umeå of all unlikely places. There are a lot of hijab-wearing women in Odense, but I can’t recall seeing anyone completely covered in the central part of Odense or on SDU’s campus. Still, they seem to exist and there was a political fight over the handling of veiled persons with personal bus cards earlier this year.