Controversy erupts over burka ban

Edition 28 December, by Lorre Luther

After more than 13 years of debate, theDutch government approved a limited burka ban last summer. On June 26, 2018, the Eerste Kamer passed the measure, and the bill became law. The ban prohibits individuals to wear face-covering garments in schools, universities, hospitals, government buildings and in public transportation. The police can fine violators up to € 400.

The law does not address hair-covering garments in general. It deals explicitly with full-face helmets, balaclavas and the two most conservative forms of veiling, the burka and the niqab. A burka covers the wearer from head to toe, with a thin mesh veil in front of the eyes. A niqab, on the other hand, does not conceal the individual’s eyes. Experts estimate the legislation, scheduled to go into effect on July 1, 2019, will impact 150 to 350 women in the Netherlands.

Supporters offer several arguments in support of the law. Many find complete headto- toe veiling to be out of step with European values. Others believe the practice promotes gender inequality, a problem The Hague has a responsibility to address. The government specifically cites public safety and its duty to provide high-quality services.

Human rights organization Amnesty International takes issue with these assertions. It released a statement calling a general ban on burqas and niqabs in public spaces a violation of the wearers’ rights to freedom of expression and religion. Other opponents of the legislation suggest it’s purely symbolic. They highlight potential enforcement difficulties and point out that the new law does nothing but repeat already existing rules in places like schools, where a limited ban on face coverings for parents, children and teachers already exists.

Professional organizations for university and secondary school educators assert the ban creates a problem where one simply does not exist. VSNU, a group that provides support to universities, called into question the need for a law prohibiting facial coverings. “We just don’t see this phenomenon,” it said. The VU Council, an association that promotes the needs of secondary school educators, remarked that the organization had never heard of students wearing burkas or niqabs.

KNMG, the Dutch physicians’ organization, had already released a statement in 2015, opposing any sort of burka ban. René Héman, chair of the society, argued: “We just aren’t hearing from doctors that they experience difficulties when it comes to treating women wearing burqas. People have to feel free to go to the doctor, regardless of what they believe or how they dress.” Héman does not think the new law will prevent fraudulent use of healthcare resources. Current regulations require individuals to provide identification before receiving treatment. According to Héman, most physicians already have procedures in place permitting women with face-covering clothing to complete the necessary processes in private.

The goals of the government, in some cases, appear to be at odds with the wishes of the workers in impacted sectors. Minister of Interior Affairs Kajsa Ollongren suggests that in healthcare settings, a clear standard should exist permitting employees to call the police if a woman with a covered face enters a hospital. Héman doubts such policy will gain much traction. “The question is whether caregivers are going to do that. Doctors want to help patients, care always comes first,” he said.

Arjan Vaandrager of KNV, an association that represents nine major public transportation corporations, doubts the wisdom of engaging bus and tram drivers in what he argues would amount to law enforcement activities. “This kind of subject creates tension, just like the Zwarte Piet debate. This can have consequences for our workers,” he suggested. “Ultimately the police are going to have to deal with this. This just isn’t what bus drivers are supposed to be doing.” The new law has little support among the leaders of several large municipalities, including Rotterdam, Utrecht and Amsterdam. The mayors of all three cities do not plan to provide enforcement resources. Femke Halsema, Mayor of Amsterdam, clarified: “I just don’t think something like this fits the values of our city.”