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Danish Hijab Ban in Schools: Freedom for Girls or State Overreach? by Bridget Ryder

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Danish Hijab Ban in Schools: Freedom for Girls or State Overreach?

A recommendation by a Danish government commission to ban Muslim headscarves in the country’s elementary schools has stirred up both debate and backlash. 

The Danish Commission for the Forgotten Women’s Struggle—a body set up by Denmark’s ruling Social Democratic Party—released the recommendation to prohibit students in elementary schools from wearing hijabs (Muslim headscarves) on August 24th as one of nine recommendations for preventing “honour-related social control” of girls from minority backgrounds.

Additional recommendations included: courses on modern Danish child-rearing for selected minority ethnic parents, putting children in ethnically diverse groups in day-care centres, preventing exemptions from the Christian studies class in schools, strengthening sex education in primary school, and tightening control of Muslim independent schools.

“Girls who grow up in Denmark must be able to decide for themselves what clothes they want to wear, who they sit next to in class, and what boyfriend they want. They do not have to bear the responsibility for their parents being well regarded in social circles,” the head of the Commission for the Forgotten Women’s Struggle, Christina Krzyrosiak Hansen, said in a statement.

Unfortunately, we still see honour-related social control in minority ethnic environments, where very young girls do not have the same rights and opportunities to live a life that most of us take for granted. It is therefore important that we as a society drop the fear of touching on the subject and intervene early.

The 9-member commission includes three members with a Muslim or ethnic minority background. Recommendations related to adolescents and adults are expected by early 2023.

The proposed measure on headscarves has unleashed a social debate as well as backlash. 

Al Jazeera reports that the committee had initially approved the recommendations unanimously but two members later retracted support for a hijab ban. One of them then withdrew completely from the commission, stating that she could not support the proposal of a ban.

“I honestly have my doubts myself,” writes Danish-Iranian radio host Ali Aminali in a commentary for Danish news outlet Berlingske, “But at the same time, I have to admit that it is possibly a necessary evil if we as a society want to maintain the secular line in the sand we drew a long time ago.”

“It is not an easy question. I will never automatically be in favour of the state interfering at this level,” he also stated. “But the arguments for the ban are strong.”

He points out that for Muslims, the headscarf is “not ‘just a piece of clothing’” but a deeply religious symbol and that it seems unlikely the girls aged eight or younger wear it of their free choice. 

Commission member Ahmad Mahmoud also explained his stance to Danish media.

“We have had the debate many times, but it doesn’t matter. We are not afraid to talk about it and criticise it, but we do not dare to implement a change. We in the commission think it is time to do so when it comes to children who wear the hijab,” Mahmoud said in an interview with Berlingske. 

He explained that in the opinion of the commission members, who have both personal and professional experience working directly with minority communities, the reality is that most girls wear the hijab due to familial pressure.

He also addressed whether the ban could be implemented without a general ban on religious symbols.

“We have had the debate, and it has been a very healthy debate,” he said. “We also give our support to possibly introduce a general ban on the use of religious symbols. It must be up to the government to find out how it can be done legally.”

Opponents to the proposal include Islamic groups and the Jewish Association.

“The Danish Islamic Religious Association believes that a headscarf ban will be a human rights violation that will increase polarisation and dissatisfaction at school,” a press release stated. “Social control of girls and women should be investigated and fought, but not at the expense of the Muslim girl’s right to wear a headscarf.”

“The commission designates all girls with headscarves as victims of their parents’ need to be well-regarded in social circles,” the Jewish Society stated in a press release. “It is a completely unreasonable stigmatization of Muslim girls and their families. And it completely negates the religious reasons for wearing a headscarf.”

It also accused the commission of lacking a factual basis for its recommendation of a headscarf ban.

Other opponents of the headscarf ban contend that simply prohibiting the hijab will not address the social pressure that Muslim girls and women face. They too counter the narrative that most girls who wear the hijab do so because of family pressure. 

The secretariat of the commission defended the group’s work in an email exchange with Al Jazeera.

“The study from 2018, which [the commission] referred to, states that only 43 percent of the ethnic minority girls in the study are allowed to see male friends in their spare time, while the same is the case for 88 percent of the ethnic Danish girls,” the statement read.

“And 13 percent of ethnic minority girls are afraid that their families will plan their future against their will, while the same is the case for 5 percent of the ethnic majority girls. One of the aims of the commission is to bring recommendations on how to equalise differences like these between Danes who are ethnic minorities and majorities,” it added.

Bridget Ryder is Spain-based writer. She has written on politics, environment, and culture for American and international publications. She holds degrees in Spanish and Catholic Studies.