The Hague, August 9. The protesters march silently, a sizzling intensity surrounding them. No beating drums, no blaring megaphones. Just signs. I want to speak, reads a fluttering banner; I am robbed, states another. Police officers flank the noiseless procession – their job is to keep the peace. But should the veiled women stray into a public building – a hospital, say – that dynamic would change. In theory, at least. The Netherlands has joined a growing list of European nations to adopt a so-called ‘burqa ban’ – a law against full face coverings in public spaces. But with police, hospitals, transport providers and politicians vowing to snub the new law, many doubt its purpose and practicality.
For years, a ban on facial coverings had been mooted by the Dutch far-right, but proposals never advanced beyond the political fringe. That changed in 2018, when politicians approved the ‘Partial Ban on Face-Covering Clothing Act’, which came into force on August 1. Any item that obstructs the face – ski masks, full-face helmets, balaclavas and religious garb – are illegal in certain public areas, including hospitals, transport hubs and police stations.
Legislators deny that the new rules have a racial dimension, but there’s little doubt of the intended target – veil-wearing Muslim women. The phrase ‘burqa ban’ has become synonymous with the restrictions, though it is in fact the niqab – a less obscuring garment – that is invariably seen on European streets. Wearers of the banned attire will be given the chance to remove the offending item, the law states, or face a fine of up to €415.
But Dutch Muslims needn’t worry too much, it seems. Unanimous in their rejection of the new rules, medical and transport groups have said they won’t uphold the ban. “It is not the job of the hospital,” read a pithy statement from the country’s medical association; “…the law is unworkable,” stressed a railway spokesman. Lack of resources will likely hinder police enforcement also, said Rotterdam’s mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb, adding that his city “has bigger problems – murder, drugs, the undermining of society”.
Such definitive opposition hasn’t dampened the spirits of the ban’s most forthright proponent, Geert Wilders. First floating the idea in 2005, Wilders’ far-right ‘Party for Freedom’ has long championed the restriction on facial veils. “The next step [is] to make sure that the headscarf could be banned in the Netherlands as well,” he said as the new rules took effect, quashing any notion of the law’s religious neutrality.
Wilders is of a political ilk that now dominate European policy making. As the mid-decade migrant crisis drove a growth of nationalist populism, centrists across the continent – desperate to remain relevant – shifted rightward. Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Switzerland have all adopted burqa bans in some form or another. Even in the United Kingdom, where calls for action have been resisted, support for face-cover regulation hovers around the 50% mark.
In common with many of its ban-embracing neighbours, the Netherlands has relatively few niqab-clad citizens. While precise figures aren’t available, Dutch academics estimate that no more than 400 women wear the full veil. Those who do aren’t the victims of familial subjugation or misogyny, research suggests, as is often inferred by advocates of the ban. Rather than freeing the women of conservative Islam’s supposed strictures, the law infringes on their personal liberties, says Dutch anthropologist Annelies Moors.
Thus the movement against facial coverings appears to be largely symbolic. Fearing the wrath of an increasingly right-leaning electorate, Dutch politicians have alighted on the burqa ban as a way of burnishing their anti-immigration credentials. That’s according to critics of the regulation, who believe it is more surface than substance. But for niqab wearers, the real-world consequences could be devastating. With their garb forbidden in police stations and hospitals, their ability to seek help when it’s most desperately needed is, theoretically, in jeopardy.
Then there’s the threat of violence. While official police enforcement is unlikely, the prospect of vigilantism can’t be overlooked. Technically a crime, niqab-wearers run the risk of a citizen’s arrest, which would allow for their physical detainment until authorities arrive. Though no such incidents have been reported, threats involving the action are not uncommon, especially online. Coupled with the new restrictions on transport, veiled women are feeling “a chilling effect on their freedom of movement,” notes Tom Zwart, professor of cross-cultural law at Utrecht University.
But amid the adversity, a remarkable stirring of solidarity can be observed, says Zwart. Expressing their support, men and women of all backgrounds joined the Hague protesters – and a new group, ‘burqa buddies’, has emerged to protect those affected by the law. Enlisting the help of regular citizens, organisers hope to safeguard niqab wearers by pairing them with local volunteers. Two weeks since its launch, nearly 6,000 people have joined.
It’s a positive step, say opponents of the ban, but still the risk of criminality hangs above the women. And with the new law going unenforced, some worry politicians may double-down with even more restrictive legislation. This would be good news for the ban’s proponents, who say it promotes security and gender equality.
These are welcome advances, if ever they materialise, but their price – personal liberty and community cohesion – is simply too great for many. This costly trade-off helped confine the burqa ban to the Dutch political fringe for years. It’s out in the open now, and only time will tell the true consequences.