In this Nov. 30, 2006, file photo, unidentified women are seen wearing a niqab during a demonstration outside the Dutch Parliament in The Hague, Netherlands. AP photo/ Fred Ernst, File

I don’t like niqabs and burqas — but they should be legal

(RNS) — Those laid-back, liberal-libertine Scandinavians have found a place to draw the line. Denmark will soon become the latest country to ban face coverings for women — which is to say, to ban the niqab, or face veil, and burqas, which include gauze over the eyes.

As Reuters recently reported, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Bulgaria and the German state of Bavaria all ban some form of face covering.

But this isn’t about persecuting Muslims immigrants, of course. Heavens, no. After his Liberal Party, the largest in the coalition government, supported the ban, spokesman Jacob Ellemann-Jensen made it clear that “this is not a ban on religious clothing, this is a ban on masking.”

Yet Denmark, like France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Bavaria, is not widely known for the widespread wearing of face masks. Not a lot of Guy Fawkes masks or Spider-Man masks to be seen on the Champs d’Elysées or the Damrak. Not a lot of hockey goalie face masks or glamorous Venetian masque masks in the shopping malls of Brussels, Sofia or Munich.

No, even Mr. Ellemann-Jensen had to admit, this measure could be predicted to affect precisely one population: those who want to wear a niqab or burqa. Reuters then helpfully reports that this law thus would affect the roughly 200 women in Denmark who wear such garments.

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Two hundred women. No wonder the issue got national attention.

Up here in left-leaning Canada, the issue has surfaced, too. The reasons for banning face coverings have ranged from security concerns to maintenance of our traditional “open-faced society.” Such rationales have rung hollow, however, when Muslim women are willing to unveil themselves to female officers and when most Canadians cover our faces for much of the year because of our traditional desire to avoid frostbite.

Down in the Excited States, one must only wait a little longer, one feels certain, for the White House weather vane to spin around to bans on face coverings. Yet such a ban would be a mistake there, just as it would be here in Canada or across the Atlantic.

To be sure, I strongly dislike niqabs and burqas. When I encounter them, I cannot help but be repelled by what I take to be symbols not only of the subjugation of women, but of a refusal to participate properly in public life. They unnerve me, frankly, and I wish they weren’t worn.

Federal laws, however, aren’t supposed to be tailored to my preference and comfort. Laws against public wearing of such clothes amount instead to cultural chauvinism and, in fact, a compromise of women’s rights.

To those who say, “Our culture prizes open faces in public,” I reply that if we really mean that, we should start to regulate the much more common incidences of sunglasses, full beards, heavy makeup or even the medical masks so many Asian tourists wear.

To those who say, “Such clothes oppress women,” I reply that I tend to think so, too. But when women themselves tell us that they prefer to wear them — some as a proud statement of their faith, others as a device to preserve their privacy — it is simply condescending to accuse them of “false consciousness” and impose our form of enlightenment upon them.

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Indeed, it’s hard to think of a way to more quickly alienate new neighbors we want to fully buy in to our way of life than to mock and restrict their clothing. And to do so isn’t even consonant with the values of that way of life we want to commend to them.

Feminism means, if nothing else, women having the freedom to choose what they put on their heads and faces so long as public order is not compromised.

Liberty means, for all of us, choosing your traditions, your authorities, even your masters.

It certainly ought to mean the freedom to choose your clothes.

(John G. Stackhouse Jr. holds the Samuel J. Mikolaski Chair of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, Canada. His 10th book is just out: "Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World." The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)


  1. Despite the proclivity of our current government towards discrimination, it is unlikely to happen here. Most countries don’t have a lot of experience or the structure to provide religious freedom in the same way we have it hardwired here.

    I am 100% positive it can be limited in areas where security is an actual concern, such as transit areas, government buildings, personal IDs. But a blanket ban is not going to fly in this country. It takes quite a bit of justification to short circuit free exercise rights, especially with a long history of dealing with cultures with distinctive religious clothing.

    The whole point of religious freedom is that nobody’s religious rituals, rites and customs are subject to outside opinions except in the most mundane and necessary ways. (Security, personal safety, safety of others…)

  2. Part of me agrees and part disagrees. I do support the ability of people to determine whatever they wear. After all how is the niqabs/burqas any more offensive than someone who wears close to nothing, and since when is covering up an offense yet nudity not.

    However, there is a culture that they have chosen to live in, and just as if anyone was to move to those countries that require these coverups they too would need to abide by the local culture and norms. I don’t believe that people should take offense when a culture anyone chooses to live in demands some form of compliance. There are however stories of women wearing burkinis that have been fined for doing so. I find nothing wrong with women who want to cover themselves up at the beach and find it odd people would have a problem with a burkini and allow women to wear nothing more than dental floss while being bare chested.

    So I haven’t given much to the conversation as I find it a massive gray area of dualities.

  3. Read about one half of the article – the childishness was a bit much. Down in the Excited States, one must only wait a little longer, one feels certain, for the White House….” They couldn’t get an adult to write the article?

  4. I dislike the patronizing tone of the author with regard to the U.S. and his clear disdain for the decisions made in Europe. Conditions there are not precisely the same as conditions here despite common western traditions and practices. Beyond his superior tone, his sentiments and arguments are sound.

  5. Although in Belgium we do not see many women wearing a niqab in public we have a ban on veils fully covering the face, and rightly so. We live in an open-faced society. The face is crucial for human identity. We recognize each other as individuals. As far as I am concerned people may wear whatever they like but if a face is hidden because they don’t want me to see it, for me it is a non-person.

  6. Your reasons for the ban are entirely spurious nonsense. It gets cold in Belgium, right? But would there be a ban on full face covering in winter for the same “open faced society” reasons? Of course not, your reasons are irrational and arbitrary. Essentially a government finding disfavor with a given religious practice and group and singling them out for harassment under the law.

    If Amish, Orthodox Jews or Sikhs fell out of favor with the majority, could there be a ban on long beards under the guise of “giving an appearance of unsanitary life and improper grooming”. In Belgium, that is distinctly possible.

    Religious freedom protects what is unpopular and despised. It protects religious practice from the irrational and arbitrary dictates of a majority.

  7. I expected that kind of answer. Besides being a bit rude it is also incorrect. The reason why people cover their faces in winter or when f.i. riding a motorcycle or scuba diving are entirely different from the reason why (some) women wear a niqab. The former are protective measures, the latter religious prescriptions that apply only to women simply because they are women. No one in our open faced society will walk around wearing masks or helmets if not required for safety reasons. We are a liberal society. Although Belgium’s policy separates the state from the churches freedom of religion of the citizens is guaranteed by the country’s constitution. The country officially recognizes six religions. All of them receive a state stipend.

  8. The reasons for the differences between are one is rational, mundane, religiously neutral and the other is vague,irrational, arbitrary and deliberately hostile to a given faith.

    You are clearly describing a society which is seething in hostility to the responsibility and principles of religious freedom. That nobody’s practices of faith are subject to the evaluation of public whim. (Within rational, secular and justifiable limits)

    You claim to have the requisite separation of church and state, but clearly lack its other integral component of free exercise of religion.

    The ban is a backdoor attack on the separation of church and state as well. Finding favor and legal power of mainstream Christianity over minority faiths.

    But really, your country does not actually separate itself from the churches. The government officially recognize and entangle the apparatus of state with a select few faiths and subsidizes them.

    By your own admission, religious freedom doesn’t really exist in your country or any other which has officially recognized faiths.

    Europeans for the most part really don’t get one of things the US has excelled at, religious freedom. It is not religious tolerance, the at will sufferance of a majority faith for a minority. Open embrace and protection of ALL religious beliefs. Especially those of the persecuted and despised.

  9. What is the penalty for covering one’s face in a protest (and probably representing more people than the women wearing niqabs)?

    An open-faced society for the purpose of identity would also prohibit facial hair on men whose physical appearance can be significantly altered – hence a common police practice of multiple mus shots.

  10. When you need to cover your face during protest manifestations you do it because you intend to take violent action. You will be fined in proportion to the damage you have caused.
    If you want to grow a beard you are free to do so (even if you are a woman) as long as the photo on your identity card matches more or less the way you look.

  11. Even freedom of religion has its limits. I don’t think any rational person would accept a religion where it is normal practice to mutilate female genitals, kill children because they are girls, forbid girls to go to school, all because their religion says so? It is contrary to everything we stand for. We have our values that we will not give up. One of them is our open society.

  12. “Even freedom of religion has its limits. ”

    Yes it does. In the US those limits require a rational and secular purpose for limiting religious practice. Something of a clearer and more coherent standard than an, “open faced society”.

    Something like security in certain places, public safety to avoid causing harm, real tangible harm to others, violations of otherwise religiously neutral laws, violations of malum per se criminal laws, and others.

    Yes, murder, mutilation, human sacrifice and discrimination are considered so wrong that even religious belief and the free exercise of it will not excuse such actions. One need never even consider the nature of the religious belief there. There are certainly enough rational, secular and clear tangible reasons for such bans.

    None of that applies to a blanket total ban on a burqa in public.

  13. “Clearer and more coherent standards than an open society”. Well, well. That is probably why the US has such an excellent reputation when it comes to mass shootings, war mongering and electing a president who is as mad as a hatter. My sincere condolances to your country.

  14. Your capitulation on the subject is duly noted.

    Btw, way to deliberately misrepresent my statement.

    My real quote was, “Clearer and more coherent standards than an open faced society” Not “open society”.

    “Open faced society” was your term.

    At this point I can’t even pretend you had any pretensions of an honest discussion here.

  15. Capitulation? That is really too easy! You know very well that we give the greatest possible freedom to all kinds of religious/philosophical convictions. We draw the line where they infringe values that we (our society as a whole) see as a corner stone of that society. One such value is the open-faced society (I accidentally dropped the “faced”) for the reasons I mentioned i my first post, i.e. the philosophical notion of the face as crucial for personal identity. In looking somebody in the face we accept them as equals who should be treated accordingy. If you do not want to show your face you put yourself outside this society.

  16. You flat out misrepresented my statement to make a strawman argument.

    “(I accidentally dropped the “faced”)”

    Not buying that. Especially given the tirade you launched right after the misquote.

    ” You know very well that we give the greatest possible freedom to all kinds of religious/philosophical convictions.”

    Actually from your description that is not the case at all.

    The idea that a specific set of religions have government recognition and subsidy is the very opposite of separation of church and state. The fact that one can attack the religious practices of a minority without citing a rational and secular motive shows that free exercise is a sham as well there.

    ” the philosophical notion of the face as crucial for personal identity.”

    A nebulous, irrational, (and based on your response to Linda Davidson), arbitrarily defined notion, which would never hold up in the US. The US has a clearly higher standard to follow for government to attack the religious practices of a given group. It is clear, the only thing keeping your notion of an “open faced
    society” from attacking facial hair is simply that the government has
    not found disfavor with those faiths as of now.

    The whole notion of religious freedom hinges on merely the idea that an outsider’s opinion of a religious practice is of no consequence. That you need some very real and tangible reasons to curb such things (such as the reasons human sacrifice, honor killings, mutilation, burning crosses on people’s property without their permission and polygamy are illegal). Just because you distrust people who keep their face covered shouldn’t mean a damn thing. Why should religious practices of others be subject to your whims here?

  17. I’m sorry, Spuddie, but I don’t see how I can continue a discussion with somebody who doesn’t even have the slightest idea about what I am talking about. Nor do I feel inclined to give a lecture on basic philosophical notions as “personhood” and “personalism”. For you all this would only be “nebulous and irrational”. So be it. Perhaps you may find somebody you can convince with your arguments.

  18. I get precisely what you are talking about. Don’t flatter yourself. Your explanations were poorly conceived. You clearly appear thin skinned about criticism to statements that were somehow expected to be taken at face value.

    I have laid out precisely why the notions of religious freedom you are explaining are not really so. How your version of separation of church and state is in fact entanglement between them. How free exercise of religion is certainly not so, nor a protected right in your country. Rather than give some kind of rational explanation for a blanket ban on a religious practice, we have been getting arbitrary, nebulous personal criticism of it. Yet somehow you make the claim your country supports religious freedom.
    But your own statements demonstrated that was clearly not the case.

    BTW, you have an “edit” button. If you weren’t ly!ng to me about
    dropping a word (which changes the nature of the statement you were
    allegedly repeating), you would have simply used that, instead of a poor

  19. You just proved my point that you don’t have the slightest idea what I was talking about.

  20. Wow, that is some major league nonsense there. I can’t help it if your country only pretends to have religious freedom.

    Its not like you bothered to address a word I said, nor at this point do I expect you to.

  21. These garments are just another symbol of Islam treating women as fodder for male Muslims.

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