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Saturday, February 14, 2009

Hijab Ban in the Danish Courts

By Amani Hassani

In May 2008, the Danish Peoples' Party - a Danish right wing political party - began a campaign against Muslim female judges wearing hijab in Danish courts. This campaign has resulted in the Danish Parliament debating a bill prohibiting judges from displaying any types of religious and political symbols. On January 23, 2009, the first reading of the bill, which has publicly been referred to as "the headscarf" bill, was submitted to the Danish Parliament.

The political Claim

The Danish Minister of Justice, Brian Mikkelsen, presented the bill with the claim that judges should be neutral and objective, and thus all religious and political symbols should be prohibited. Despite some politicians' objections, the bill was supported by the political spectra, including several politicians from the political opposition to the government.

One politician argues that the bill is supposed to guard against any future situations, as it aims to avoid any claim against the Danish court of not providing fair and objective trials as the judge wears a religious symbol. The Minister of Justice further explains that this law ensures the judge's unbiased attitude, and it thereby guarantees citizens' trust in the legal system. However, the Danish courts do not see any benefit from the bill since there are already laws in the Danish legal system that ensure the citizen's right to complain if the judge's objectivity is questioned. Moreover, the bill has received criticism from several legal institutions as well as the Danish Human Rights Institute.

The objections of legal experts
While the bill has received general political support, a group of highly respected lawyers have been among the greatest protesters against the bill. They have expressed their objection in an appeal to the Parliament, describing the bill as unconstitutional. They said that it targets Muslim women in particular, and it is thus discriminatory as it opposes one of the civil rights like the freedom to practise religion.

The lawyers further argue that the bill was mainly directed against the Muslim woman's hijab, since religious symbols, like the cross, had never been an issue in the past. There is thus no reason for this bill, and it only limits the rights of a minority group.

In their appeal, the lawyers also draw attention to the damaging effect of such a bill on the integration of new citizens, since integration is also a question of having access to higher education and employment in leading positions in both public and private institutions.

Muslim law students : Facing the Double Standards

This bill, if accepted, can have a real effect on the future career of both Muslim female law students and actual lawyers, for example. One of the law students, who wishes to remain anonymous, explains that it is really irritating that politicians targeted judges with this bill, who represent the top of the social hierarchy. Thus, it is very likely that their next step will be to address the lower levels of that hierarchy, and they will aim to ban the hijab on all levels in the court level. Another law student, Siham El Morabit, agrees with this idea, and they both explain how this concept was the primary motive to do their best trying to convince politicians to vote against the bill. Both students said that their involvement in opposing this bill is a means of expressing their concern about the double standards of a country like Denmark that claims enjoying freedom and equal opportunities for all its citizens.

Fighting a Covered Discrimination

"I should not be judged by my outer appearance but rather by my professional qualifications”, argues one of the students. She describes the hypocrisy in being born and raised in Denmark under the principle 'freedom for all', but when you, as a member of the Muslim minority, reach a certain point in the professional hierarchy you should know that this is far from reality. In her view, this is nothing but a covered discrimination.

Siham is also worried about the lights being shed on the hijab debate. "We are no longer women wearing hijab - rather it is the hijab wearing the women", says Siham. She also expressed her worries about the fact that people in the past did not see the hijab as a problem, but now they pay much more attention to it. "With this bill the politicians add to the headscarf power by focusing on a non-living object. But it is what it is: "mere fabric", she added.

Therefore both law students feel it is an obligation to fight this bill. They explain how they consider it to be an Islamic as well as a legal responsibility to fight against the injustice the Muslim woman undergoes and also against the breach of civil rights. The bill limits the rights of the Muslim minority in a context where a lot of Muslim youths already have a hard time climbing the social ladder.

Siham further explains that the great problem in this debate is the fact that the politicians are creating such a restriction on a minority group. Thereby, it ends up treating a minority group as second-rate citizens, and thus it is obviously a violation of the Danish civil rights of equal opportunity for all citizens no matter what their religion, sex or ethnicity might be. For Siham, it is a question of creating an acceptance from the general population to perceive Danish Muslims as equal members of the Danish community. "We will not get far in Denmark unless we accept that we live in a multicultural and diverse country. It is a great loss for Denmark not to recognize Muslim women as equal citizens”, argues Siham.

If accepted

In the next few months, the bill will undergo two more Parliamentary readings, and if accepted the bill will become effective from July 1, 2009. In spite of their great efforts, both law students think it is very likely that the bill will be passed. But what will that mean for their career as the future Danish lawyers? The hijab-debate has been going on since the early 90s, but until now it has only been a discussion of the rights of private companies to ban it in their own company. Now the debate has resulted in the government promulgating laws against the rights of highly professional women to practise their religion. This makes one speculate about how far the government will go, if they are willing to make a law against judges who are at the top of the hierarchal structure of the society.

Which minority will be exposed to discrimination next? What will be the result of that bill under discussion? Is Denmark a country where only the majority enjoys freedom and can become successful participants?

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