The Netherlands is likely to become the first country in Europe to ban the burka, under government proposals that would bring in some of the toughest curbs on Muslim clothing in the world.
The country’s hardline Integration Minister, Rita Verdonk, known as the Iron Lady for her series of tough anti-immigration measures, told Parliament that she was going to investigate where and when the Burka should be banned. The burka, traditional clothing in some Islamic societies, covers a woman’s face and body, leaving only a strip of gauze for the eyes.
Mrs Verdonk gave warning that the ‘time of cosy tea-drinking’ with Muslim groups had passed and that natives and immigrants should have the courage to be critical of each other. She recently cancelled a meeting with Muslim leaders who refused to shake her hand because she was a woman.
The proposals are likely to win the support of Parliament because of the expected backing by right-wing parties. But they have caused outrage among Muslim and human rights groups, who say that the Government is pandering to the far Right.
Mrs Verdonk admitted that a complete ban on the garment would be legally tricky because of freedom of religion legislation. However, she said that she would prohibit the garments ‘in specific situations’ on grounds of public safety. The ban is likely to be enforced in shops, public buildings, cinemas, train and bus stations and airports, as well as on trains and buses.
The Netherlands has become preoccupied by Islamic terrorism after the investigation into the murder of the film-maker Theo van Gogh uncovered a network of Muslim extremists dedicated to destroying the country. Attention has turned to the burka because police authorities have become concerned that a terrorist could use one for concealment.
A government spokesman said: “We want to investigate when, how, in which places the burka should be banned. It is a safety measure — you don’t see who is in it.”
The Government cites as a precedent existing football legislation, which bans people from entering football grounds covering their faces in scarves.
Yassim Hertog, a vice-president of the Muslim School Boards Union, said: “Can you prohibit someone from wearing a certain type of dress? They are trying to test what a government can forbid, and how far you can go trampling on people’s rights. They want to show all these Dutch citizens who are sick and tired of all these ‘mutant’ citizens, this is where we draw the line — get normal.”
Muslim groups insist that only a few dozen women in the Netherlands wear the burka, and that the ban is a distraction. The Muslims and Government Contact Body said: “Only a handful of Muslims actually wear burkas. Let us focus our energy on what we have in common. This is not a big problem.”
Last year two Muslim women lost a court case against their college that had banned them from wearing burkas during their social work and childcare course. The judge backed the college in its claim that children had to be able to see who was caring for them, prompting the women to drop the course.
Famile Arslan, the women’s lawyer, told The Times:
“Women have a very strong opinion about the burka. If you ban it they won’t leave the house. It is not a good way to integrate and emancipate Muslim women. Everything Muslims do is criticised by Verdonk. She is doing it to get votes. She doesn’t care about Muslims and their problems.”
Mrs Verdonk made the proposals after Geert Wilders, the right-wing MP, requested the ban. Mr Wilders claimed that the garment was unfriendly towards women and a threat to security.
Baroness Sarah Ludford MEP, on the European Parliament’s Civil Liberties Committee, who has been active in opposing bans on the hijab, or scarf, said that there were no arguments for banning the burka. “If there is a genuine belief that someone under a burka is a terrorist, then you invoke stop-and-search laws on the grounds of reasonable suspicion.”
The Netherlands would become the first European country to ban the wearing of the burka in public situations, although there are already some local bans. Last year several Belgian towns, including Antwerp and Ghent, banned the wearing of the burka in public, and recently started issuing £100 spot fines for breaking the municipal ordinance. Several towns in Italy, including Como, have invoked legislation introduced by Mussolini that bans hiding one’s face in public to impose fines on burka-wearers. France and several regions of Germany have followed Turkey and Tunisia in banning the wearing of the hijab, which leaves the face visible, in public buildings, most controversially in schools.
The French ban applies only inside government-owned buildings and was imposed to preserve the secular nature of the state.
SHIFT TO THE RIGHT
How the Netherlands has become less liberal:
Immigrants must pass an exam on Dutch language and culture before being allowed to move to the Netherlands. That does not apply to immigrants from US, Canada, Australia, Japan and other EU states.
Legal immigrants already there must take a Dutch language course at their own expense.
Immigrants guilty of any minor crime, such as shoplifting, during their first three years in the country can be deported.
People can bring in a husband or wife only once they are 24 years old, and do not depend on welfare benefits. The measures are aimed at curbing international arranged marriages.
26,000 illegal immigrants are being deported, some of whom have been in the country for ten years and have established families.
Clampdown on foreign imams working in mosques. They must show their appreciation of Dutch values.
Increase in sentences for a range of crimes, and introduction of ‘zero tolerance’ policing to cities such as Rotterdam.
Tightening of rules on cannabis-selling coffee-shops and zero-tolerance approach to infringements. About half the coffee shops in Amsterdam have closed.
The Netherlands is still liberal in some ways, however. In 2001, the country became the first in the world to legalise gay marriages. The Netherlands still has liberal rules on euthanasia, recently extending it to severely handicapped babies and children.