The Dutch Senate has approved a law that bans the wearing of "face-covering clothing" in public buildings, including hospitals, schools and government offices, as well as on public transportation.
Although the ban does not extend to public streets, the law authorizes police to ask individuals to remove face-covering clothing to establish their identity.
Those found flouting the ban — which includes Islamic veils and robes such as burqas (which cover the entire face) and niqabs (which cover the entire face except for the eyes), as well as balaclavas and full-face helmets — will be subject to a fine of 410 euros ($475).
The new law, previously adopted by the Dutch House of Representatives in November 2016, was approved on June 26 by 44 to 31 votes in the 75-seat Senate.
In a statement, the government, which has not yet said when the law will enter into effect, explained its purpose:
"In a free country like the Netherlands, everyone has the freedom and space to behave and dress as he or she desires. Sometimes, limits can and must be imposed on that freedom. In the case of face-covering clothing, this applies in particular if mutual communication is impeded or safety is jeopardized.
"Mutual communication whereby people can look each other in the face is so important that uniform rules have now been laid down by law. This makes it clear to everyone what is and is not allowed in those situations."
A Muslim activist group called "Stay away from my Niqab!" said the ban is unconstitutional. In an open letter sent to Dutch lawmakers, the group, which has more than 5,000 followers on Facebook, asked:
"Why is it not realized that this law leads to people being isolated from society? This ban leads to women who wear face-covering clothing, who like to participate in society, no longer to be able to do this effectively because they now have a restriction on education, license applications, travel with public transport, visiting a doctor and much more....
"Is the constitution no longer applicable to women with face-covering clothing? What about the right that everyone is free to dress how he/she wants, regardless of race, gender, religion or belief?
"What about Article 6 of the Constitution which sets out freedom of religion and belief? Is there a problem in which everyone does not have the right freely to confess their religion or belief, individually or in community with others?"
The group's spokeswoman, Karima Rahmani, added:
"We feel that we are being wronged with a repressive measure, which is why we trying to make our voices heard. It is getting harder and harder to be on the street with a niqab. I myself have been threatened with death, and other women have even been physically attacked.
"There is a lot of talk about me, but no one comes to me to ask: 'Why do you actually wear that niqab?' It is part of my religion and I want to be free to make that choice. It is a spiritual experience that I personally experience."
The Council of State, an independent advisor to the government on legislation, said that the ban was unnecessary and potentially unconstitutional. In a November 2015 report, it said that the Dutch Cabinet had been guided too much by "subjective feelings of insecurity" that "do not justify a ban." It added:
"The Council of State points out that the bill primarily seems to have been motivated by objections to wearing Islamic face-covering clothing.... Insofar as face-covering clothing (for example a burqa) is worn to express a religious clothing prescription, this falls under the constitutionally-protected freedom of religion. The ban proposed by the government does not, according to the Council of State, justify restricting the right to freedom of religion."
The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), however, twice has ruled that burqa bans are legal, making it unlikely that the Dutch ban could be overturned in court.
Pictured: A person wearing an Islamic full-face covering in The Hague, Netherlands. (Image source: Patrick Rasenberg/Flickr CC by-NC 2.0)
In July 2017, for example, the ECHR upheld a Belgian ban on wearing the burqa in public spaces. It said that the government had been responding "to a practice that it considered to be incompatible, in Belgian society, with social communication and more generally the establishment of human relations, which were indispensable for life in society...essential to ensure the functioning of a democratic society." In July 2014, the ECHR upheld France's burqa ban, accepting the French government's argument that it encouraged citizens to "live together."
The Dutch government has repeatedly insisted that the ban is not about restricting religion but about promoting communication and public safety. It has described the new law as "religion neutral" because it is not limited just to the burka and niqab, but also includes the balaclava and full-face helmet.
Dutch Interior Minister Kajsa Ollongren said the new law represents "a fair balance" between "the freedom to dress as one wishes" and "the general interest of communication and security." She also said that far from violating fundamental rights, the ban will enable Muslim women "to have access to a wider social life" because if they do not cover the face "they will have more possibilities for contact, communication and opportunities to enter the job market."
A complete ban was originally proposed in December 2005 by Party for Freedom (PVV) leader Geert Wilders, who argued that burqas and niqabs are barriers to the integration of women in the Netherlands: "We must ban the burqa. People's faces should not be hidden in society, for it is our faces that give us our identity and our fundamental means of communication with others."
The Netherlands is the sixth European country to approve a burqa ban, after France, Belgium, Bulgaria, Austria and Denmark. Bavaria in Germany, Catalonia in Spain, Lombardy in Italy and Ticino in Switzerland also have imposed regional burqa bans, while Norway has tabled a law to ban burqas in public schools. Latvia has proposed a burqa ban, but it has not yet been enacted.
Soeren Kern is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute.