The Netherlands, The Hague As America debates the role of the hijab in the workplace, Europe continues to pursue bans on Muslim face veils and similar attire. After three years and two coalition governments, the Dutch parliament is poised to approve a ban on the burqa.
Or they sort of are.
Based on a proposal put forth by Interior Minister Ronald Plasterk, the Cabinet in late May approved a measure that would forbid garments that cover the face on public transportation and in hospitals, government buildings, and schools. The ban includes balaclavas and motorcycle helmets as well as burqas and niqabs, which cover a woman’s face but not her eyes. In addition, police can require people to remove their veils or helmets for identification purposes at any time. Those who violate the law can be fined up to €405 — significantly more than France’s fine of €150, but less threatening than Belgium’s penalty of €25 plus as much as a week in prison.
The areas covered by the ban — schools, transportation, hospitals and government buildings — are those places where concerns for interpersonal communication and safety are especially critical, said Afshin Ellian, a professor of jurisprudence at the University of Leiden and an expert on multiculturalism, citizenship, and human rights. “People have to be recognizable in such areas,” he said. “And anywhere in a free society, it is crucial that people are able literally to look each other in the face.” In a statement to the press, Plasterk echoed that importance, noting that “in schools you have to be able to look one another in the eyes. If a mother comes to pick her child up at school you need to be able to see if it really is the mother.” (Indeed, in January, 2013, a woman wearing a niqab kidnapped a Muslim child from a local school; the five-year-old girl, who could not see her abductor’s face, thought the kidnapper was her own mother, who also wears a niqab.)
The European Court of Human Rights has also concurred with this view, in its 2014 judgment on France’s ban on the veil, which states: “The Court was also able to understand the view that individuals might not wish to see, in places open to all, practices or attitudes which would fundamentally call into question the possibility of open interpersonal relationships, which, by virtue of an established consensus, formed an indispensable element of community life within the society in question. The Court was therefore able to accept that the barrier raised against others by a veil concealing the face was perceived by the respondent State as breaching the right of others to live in a space of socialization which made living together easier…. The ban could therefore be regarded as proportionate to the aim pursued, namely the preservation of the conditions of ‘living together.’”
Other supporters of the ban have cited concerns about oppression: Women who are forced by husbands or fathers to wear what some call “a walking coffin” that “demeans their dignity” are in no position to refuse, the argument goes, lest they be beaten or punished; but a decision made by the government relieves them of responsibility — and so, too, the blame.
For members of the ruling VVD, or Freedom and Democracy Party, the new directive comes as a long-fought victory: Although the party had initially sought a more comprehensive ban, they ultimately settled on the current version during the previous administration, known as “Rutte I” (for Mark Rutte, VVD leader and the Netherlands’ prime minister) before its fall in April, 2012. Legislation stalled as a result of the transition from Rutte I to Rutte II, the current coalition, and has recently been subjected to heated debate.
Unsurprisingly, reactions have been mixed. Geert Wilders, who leads the far-right PVV (Freedom Party), called the rule “inadequate” but “a step in the right direction.” Speaking to the press, he asked, “People who are totally invisible, women who will never integrate — why is that OK on the street? Why is a burqa not allowed on a bus, but at [grocery store chain] Albert Heijn? Why not in the library, but on the street?”
Others, like D-66 (Liberal Democrat party) member Gerard Schouw and a wide assortment of opinion writers, have accused the government of “showmanship” and “symbolic politics.” Their gripe: According to research by Annelies Moors, an anthropologist at the University of Amsterdam, only about 150 women in the Netherlands actually wear a niqab or burqa on a regular basis; some 400 others wear them “now and then.” Is that really enough to justify a law? Moreover, most of these women are Dutch-born converts, Moors and others have argued. They are not “oppressed” women being “forced” to wear them (unless one considers religious mandate a form of oppression.)
Author and activist Naema Tahir is another who finds the argument that such a ban “liberates” Muslim women laughable. Nor does she buy into the “security” argument. “In a liberal society, you can only forbid something if it causes violence or forms a threat. You can’t associate every woman wearing a burqa with danger, threats, oppression,” she said via e-mail. “So a general law banning the burqa is just discrimination. You have to go case by case. But then you also need to check people with other forms of covering: sunglasses, say, or long skirts.”
But American feminist author Phyllis Chesler, who has written extensively about the burqa, disagrees. “As long as one girl anywhere is in danger of being beaten or honor killed for refusing to wear a face veil, or for wearing a scarf that has slipped or is worn improperly,” she said, “then in my opinion we should not allow the veil anywhere.”
Still, some wonder whether such a ban isn’t in fact counterproductive. Ayesha Akhtar, a Bengali-American, Muslim artist who dressed men in niqabs and chadors and filmed them going through an ordinary day for her ‘Burqa Project,’ is uncomfortable with such laws. “As much as I dislike burqas and niqabs,” she said, “the idea of a government banning burqas makes me cringe. And,” she added, “I’m curious to know: Is there an issue with people wearing helmets and ski masks in Dutch hospitals, schools, and government buildings?”
Akhtar, who lives in New York, admits that, “it is kind of scary seeing someone in a full burqa on a subway station. We’re conditioned to think the worst.” But at the same time, she said, “I think the ban will create a false sense of security.” What’s more, she fears that such bans “throw fuel to the radical Islam fire. It gives another reason to say — hey, look at these secular countries and how they oppress our beliefs,” she observed. “Banning almost anything with religious or cultural significance cannot avoid political implications.”
Akhtar said she doesn’t think a ban is the best way to bridge barriers between people and cultures. “I don’t know of any instance of banning someone’s freedom to express him or herself religiously or culturally that has ever done any good,” she said. Rather, she would like to see “a request, rather than a ban — like a sign that says ‘for safety reasons, we respectfully request the removal of all head wear that obstructs your face when entering this building.’ But perhaps that’s too idealistic. Perhaps it’s just too civilized.”