A majority in the Dutch parliament wants to prohibit wearing the burka in public. It remains to be seen, however, whether the traditional Islamic garment, that covers the entire body, will disappear from Dutch streets. Integration Minister Rita Verdonk thinks a total ban might contravene the constitution. She is looking into the matter and will present the conclusions of her inquiry in January.
The minister calls the burka a symbol of the repression of women: “Women do not need to be ashamed of their appearance.” MP Geert Wilders agrees and thinks that, in these “uncertain times”, it is important that people can be identified in public places.
The former conservative VVD politician, who now represents his own group in the Dutch parliament, cited these two reasons when he proposed a motion to prohibit the burka in public. He received support from two of the three government coalition parties (the conservative VVD and Christian Democrat CDA) and from the LPF opposition party, which was founded by Pim Fortuyn who was murdered in 2002.
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No covered faces
The Christian Democrats do not want to wait for the integration minister’s inquiry. CDA MP Wim van der Camp: “We voted in support of the motion because we want to clearly tell the government that people’s faces should be visible in public, whether this concerns a burka, a crash helmet or a balaclava. Normal people do not walk around with covered faces.”
In the Netherlands, few women wear the burka and opponents of the ban ask why the Dutch parliament is making so much fuss over the issue. Lawyer Famile Arslan: “We are probably talking about less than 100 women in a population of 16 million. What I am concerned about is if it starts with the burka, where will it end?” Arslan fears “another regulation aimed against Muslims”.
Freedom of religion guarantees in the Dutch constitution appear to back the right of Muslim women to dress according to the requirements of their religion. Haci Karacaer, the director of Milli Gorus, a conservative Turkism Muslim organisation:
“I agree that women who walk around in the burka do not have a great future in this country but I think they should be allowed to dress as they want in a constitutional state. People should have the right to choose to exclude themselves from society.”
How many women wear the burka voluntarily is a contentious question.
Curbs on religious freedom
Despite the problems, a Dutch ban on the burka remains a possibility. Dutch law can limit the freedom of religion guaranteed under the constitution ‘in order to protect public health, in the interest of traffic and to counter or prevent disorder ‘ (art 6.2). Some years ago, the Equality Commission supported a school in banning the Islamic veil from its premises. According to the commission, the veil hindered communication between teacher and pupil and in addition argued that the authorities should be able to identify who is present in school buildings.
The Free University in Amsterdam is another institution which does not allow students to wear the veil or the burka on its premises. However, it has also banned clothing that ‘does not show respect to fellow humans’, such as Lonsdale brand shirts and trousers which are associated with right-wing extremism in the Netherlands.
In Belgium, a number of towns have already prohibited the burka. Maaseik was the first to introduce a ban, followed by the city of Antwerp. Flemish town councils cite a 1993 law requiring that everyone should be able to be identified in public. The Belgian police, however, treat women wearing the burka with respect. In Antwerp, only female police officers are allowed to ask them for identification and the women are not fined on the first occasion, but only if they repeat the offence.