After more than a decade of pushing for a ban on face-covering clothing, far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders has finally succeeded in making this ban reality. Officially, the ban is directed at more general forms of face-covering clothing such as balaclavas and full face helmets, but popularly the ban is understood as a ban on particular Islamic forms of face-covering clothing, such as the burqa and niqab.
The bill for the ban, popularly known in the Netherlands as the ‘burqa ban’, has passed through parliament’s upper chamber on Tuesday the 12th of June. Prior to this decision, the Netherlands has witnessed heated debated concerning the subject with PVV-leader Geert Wilders. Introducing the derogative term “kopvod” in 2009 – which roughly translates to English as “raghead” – Wilders demanded that there should be a tax for people who ‘wear rags on their head’, by which he meant veiled Muslim women. This idea came to be known as the kopvoddentax (“raghead tax”), in which Wilders and his party argued that women who veiled themselves, should have to have a permit to do so, which would costs thousands of euros per year. Since Wilders has first filed a motion against the burqa in 2005, years of tussling in Dutch politics about the “burqa ban” has ensued. While Wilders’ ideas have at first been met with much resistance, there is a strong political support behind the ban now. In 2016, the majority of the House of Representatives (Tweede Kamer) stood behind the ban, except for parties D66, GroenLinks and members of DENK Tunahan Kuzu and Selçuk Öztürk.
In accordance with earlier Dutch political support, the ban has now passed through the parliament’s upper chamber with a majority of the votes in senate: the VVD, PVV, CDA, ChristenUnie, SGP and the Onafhankelijke Senaatsfractie (“independent Senate fraction”) have all voted in favour of the ban. There has been still been some critical voices against the ban however, both political and non-political. A Tom Rombouts, a member of the Christian Democratic Party (CDA) for example, has admitted that consent to the ban feels like a “struggle”. On the one hand, the party believes to have a high regard for the freedom of religion, but also believes that the government sometimes needs to send out “a powerful signal to set a standard”. GroenLinks has provided one of the few voices in the political sphere to be completely against the ban, arguing that this law is not only stigmatizing, it also does not provide measures the emancipation of the estimated few hundred women in the Netherlands who wear a burqa or niqab.
Outside of the political sphere, a few prominent academics have objected to the ban. Annelies Moors, professor in contemporary Muslim societies at the University of Amsterdam, has argued that the ban does not serve any (societal) purpose and is simply a form of symboolpolitiek (“symbol politics”). Moors rejects the main argument used in favour of the ban, which points to the necessity of being able to communicate in public places by seeing each other’s facial expressions: a burqa or niqab would prevent this, the proponents of the ban argue. Moors argues that this would mean the government should stop online communication and communication by phone, since these forms of communication also prevent the use of facial expressions. As is often the case in discussing measures affecting Muslims as a religious minority in the Netherlands, particularly women, there is hardly any attention for the voices of women who actually wear face-covering clothing.
It seems that only Dutch newspaper Trouw has made the effort to speak to women who wear the niqab (which is often confused with the burqa, a specific form of Islamic dress often worn in Afghanistan). In an article written by Sheila Kamerman, a few women who wear niqab speak out against the ban which will affect them heavily in their daily lives.
One of the women, who goes by the name Najat, wears the niqab and lives in the city of Utrecht in the Netherlands. She tells the Trouw reporter that in her daily life, she is always prepared to explain to people why she wears a niqab and how a ban would affect her. Even when people verbally abuse her, by saying things like “you don’t belong here” or “go back to where you came from” (ironically, most of these women are born and raised in the Netherlands). Najat, who started wearing the niqab eight years ago, sees her choice as a very deliberate one, not affected by her husband or anyone else but herself: moreover, it fits in the way she experiences her religion. In addition, she questions the consequences the ban might have on her daily life and her participation in society. The ban would prevent her, for example, to bring her children to the hospital. She would be barred from entering the hospital and as the sole responsible person for her children, this would have serious consequences for them and her.
Another niqab-wearing woman featured in the article, Emine Ozak, criticizes what she believes is the hypocrisy behind the ban. She points out that Dutch schools teach children not to bully and not to discriminate, yet the Netherlands approve of a discriminatory ban. She believes that it is nonsense that people feel unsafe because of her: instead, because of the ban, she feels like she is treated like a criminal.