AMSTERDAM – If the Netherlands becomes the first European country to ban the burqa and other Muslim face veils this month, Hope says she’ll resort to wearing a surgical mask to dress in accordance with her religious beliefs.
“I’ll wear one of those things they wore during the SARS epidemic if I have to,” said the Dutch-born Muslim, one of about 50 women in the Netherlands who wear the head-to-toe burqa or the niqab, a face veil that conceals everything but the eyes.
“I’m very practical,” the 22-year-old added.
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Last December, parliament voted to forbid women from wearing the burqa or any Muslim face coverings in public, justifying the move in part as a security measure.
The cabinet is awaiting the results of a study into the legality of such a ban under European human rights laws, before making its final decision. The results are expected in the second half of this month.
“This is an enormous victory for traditional Dutch decency,” said Geert Wilders, the populist member of parliament who first proposed the burqa ban, after hearing parliament had backed it.
“The burqa is hostile to women and medieval. For a woman to walk around on the streets completely covered is an insult to everyone who believes in equal rights.”
The Dutch may have been among the first to legalise cannabis, prostitution and euthanasia — earning them a reputation for tolerance — but they are now in the process of imposing some of Europe’s toughest entry and integration laws.
Social and religious tensions have escalated in recent years, exacerbated by the murder of columnist and director Theo van Gogh by a Dutch-Moroccan militant in 2004 after he made a film accusing Islam of condoning violence against women.
His murder, and that of anti-immigration populist Pim Fortuyn two years earlier, deeply unsettled the country and provoked an anti-Muslim backlash, as well as much soul-searching about the make-up and cohesion of Dutch society.
Famile Arslan, a Dutch-Muslim lawyer, believes a ban would only reinforce today’s polarised climate, and prompt more women to wear the niqab as a form of protest.
“We are very scared that what starts with a ban on the burqa will end with a ban on the hijab”, she said, referring to the Muslim headscarf worn by thousands in the Netherlands.
“A country once known for its tolerance is now becoming known for its ignorance,” she added, stressing public opinion of the Netherlands’ 1 million Muslims had hit an all-time low.
About a third of the country’s Muslims have Moroccan ancestry, while Dutch-Turks form another sizeable community.
The Netherlands would be the first European state to impose a countrywide ban on Islamic face coverings, though other countries have already outlawed them in specific places.
In 2004, France controversially banned overt religious symbols such as Muslim headscarves, large Christian crosses and Jewish skullcaps from schools, arguing they were contrary to its separation of church and state.
In the same year, the Belgian town of Maaseik banned burqas, by adapting existing laws which require people to be readily identifiable in public.
Wilders, who lives under heavy guard after death threats for his criticism of radical Islam, argues a ban on the burqa will support moderate Muslims and boost their wider integration, in addition to removing a security risk.
“It is not acceptable for people to completely cover themselves on the street. It threatens public order and security. Plus it is a terrifying sight and only increases the cleft between natives and foreigners,” he wrote in his Web-log.
“Not the problem”
Hope says Wilders and his supporters do not understand and their comments upset and offend her.
“Yes extremism is growing, but I am not the problem,” she said.
Hope chose to wear the niqab out of her love of God, a love she wants to show the world, she said. She spent a lot of time persuading her parents that she had not been brainwashed or developed militant tendencies.
“I got attached to the niqab like to a pair of jeans.”
The fact that the potential new law is consistently spoken of as a “burqa ban” also spreads confusion and reveals ignorance about Muslim customs, she believes.
“What I know as a burqa is the long blue robe they wear in Afghanistan. What I am wearing is not a burqa,” she said.
Hope is among a number of Amsterdam’s young Muslim women who took part in a timely exhibition at the city’s historical museum about women’s motivations for wearing the hijab, as well as the different styles and colours they favour.
Few of the contributors would wear a niqab themselves, with some even agreeing that it sends the message that a woman wants to withdraw from society, but they object to the move to ban it.
“I think the niqab and the burqa are a little bit extreme and can I understand why people want to see a woman’s face,” said 16-year-old Kaoutar Yakubi, who chooses headscarves ranging from bright pink to black depending on her mood.
“But I don’t think there should be laws governing how a person dresses — it is their choice.”