The Police and the Headscarf Debate in the Netherlands and the Case of Sarah Izat

Can you be a “neutral” policewoman and still wear an Islamic headscarf? According to young Dutch Muslim Sarah Izat (26), these two are not in contradiction with each other. Izat, who has worked for the Dutch police force since she was twenty-one years old, has become prominent in Dutch public debates about wearing a headscarf as a police-officer. She has shared her story in an interview with Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant.

While the interview with Izat has given rise to a great deal of debate and outcry, this specific discussion in the Netherlands started back in last May, when a non-Muslim policewoman in Amsterdam attracted attention when she wore a headscarf during her neighborhood shift in Osdorp, a place in the borough Amsterdam-West. According to Sofyan Mbarki, a council member of the political party PvdA in Amsterdam, the policewoman wore a headscarf “out of solidarity and because she supports a diverse police force”. The act of solidarity by the policewoman did not only receive positive, encouraging comments, but was also confronted with hate and outrage. The main argument that was used against her action was that the police acted as representatives of the Dutch state and law and should therefore have a “neutral appearance”.

In Izat’s case, we see that the argument that the police should have and maintain a “neutral” appearance, still plays a central role for Izat’s opponents. They believe Izat cannot possibly fulfill a “secular” role as a civil servant and be visible as a Muslim woman at the same time. Izat has argued that her headscarf is an unmistakable part of her identity and believes that it has no negative consequences for her work as a police-officer. She also criticizes the existing policy of the police to not only ban (publically visible) religious symbols, but also tattoos and  other “non-conventional” forms of physical appearance and gives examples of how she witnessed colleagues who defied the policy, one who had a visible tattoo for example – which she does not object against – but believes that it shows that the policy inevitably leads to discrimination. Others – which included people of color and people from other marginal groups – have criticized the concepts that are used to maintain the status quo. What is ‘neutrality’ and it is even possible to achieve? After the death of Mitchell Henriquez, who a lot of people believe have been targeted deliberately by the police because he was a man of color – more and more people came forward to criticize the people and it’s so called ‘neutrality’. A recent point of discussion has been brought forward by Dutch anti-‘Black Pete’ activists –mostly people of color – who witnessed how Dutch police-officers aided and acted friendly towards pro-‘Black Pete’ protesters, who illegally blocked a highway road to prevent anti-‘Black Pete’ activists going to a place in the Netherlands where they would protest. They argue therefore, that the police are far from acting and being neutral. This is still an ongoing discussion in the Netherlands, usually met with vicious resistance from white ‘autochthon’ Dutch citizens.

Izat filed a complaint against the police at the College for Human Rights shortly after the police rejected her for a new role at her workplace because of her headscarf, and they had ruled in her favor. The police however, decided to not follow up on the ruling of the College for Human Rights – since it was not legally binding, but only functions as and advice. Fred Paauw, a representative of the Dutch police corps, has said that both the police and the government found the “neutrality of the police-officer” more important.


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