The Netherlands just banned the burqa, but there's a reason such bans just don't work

The Netherlands just banned the burqa, but there's a reason such bans just don't work
Comment: The Netherlands is the latest country in Europe to have banned face coverings in public places. But these far-right appeasing bans are ridiculous and harmful, writes Sophia Akram
4 min read
05 Aug, 2019
France was the first country to impose a ban with legislation enacted in 2011 [Getty]
In 2005, the Dutch far-right leader of the populist Freedom Party Geert Wilders tabled a bill proposing a ban on face coverings. At the time, the legislation failed to take off but as is the way with politics, it was revisited and was subsequently backed in exchange for Wilders' support for the then minority government in 2010.

Fourteen years later the firebrand's legacy legistlation took effect on Thursday 1 August.

Almost immediately, however, the law appeared to unravel, as police reportedly claimed that enforcing the ban was not their priority.

It was clear that they also just weren't comfortable with the legislation, which they said could possibly deter women who observe the modest dress code from going into police stations or making complaints.

Transport workers uttered a similar sentiment and Amsterdam's local government is set to ignore it.

The farcical outcome isn't such a surprise. The Netherlands is the latest of a number of countries in Europe that have banned face coverings in public places. Others include Latvia, Bulgaria, France, Belgium, Denmark and Austria yet in all these countries such bans seem not only useless, but also harmful.

Austria imposed its own ban in 2017, which it introduced as the "Anti-Face-Covering Act." The law had ridiculous consequences and police ended up arresting a man in a shark outfit.

France was the first country to impose a ban with legislation enacted in 2011. Seven years later the secular republic's policy was slammed when a UN human rights body said in 2018 that it was too sweeping and unnecessary.

It also noted that a full ban meant women could be confined to their homes, "impeding their access to public services and marginalising them," anathema to France's purported ambition behind the ban of enabling communication between one another and to promote the value of "living together."

Austria imposed its own ban in 2017, which it introduced as the "Anti-Face-Covering Act." The law had ridiculous consequences and police ended up arresting a man in a shark outfit.

The numbers also speak for themselves, or not, as appears in some cases. 

When the data speaks

Estimates from the French security services initially divulged 367 women in the country wore full face coverings. But a recount was requested as the number was deemed too low, which returned a figure of 1,900, which is still only 0.03% of France's 5.7 million Muslim population – 0.003% of its actual population.

In Belgium, there are no estimates because the numbers were deemed to be a "marginal phenomenon" among the Muslims that make up 4 percent of the country's population.

To give the reader a snippet of the situation in Bulgaria, home of the largest Muslim minority of any EU country, a local ban was imposed in one town before the national ban, and was done so because it had around 24 women there who wore the face veil, 0.03% of the town's population.

Yet however few, these women's lives will be significantly impacted if the UN's assessment is anything to go by and it won't just be a fear of the authorities where the Netherlands is concerned but fear of invoking an assault.

Several months after France imposed its "burqa ban" violent attacks were detected against women in face veils. In April this year, it was reported that hate crimes were on the up across Europe. In this context, a fully covering Muslim woman is faced with a dangerous horizon.

Citizen arrests of niqabis?

The Dutch law doesn't single out the niqab per se; it's a ban on all face coverings. This includes helmets, balaclavas and ski masks as well. It also doesn't apply on the street but in public buildings such as schools, hospitals and public transport.

However, as a journalist from Algemeen Dagblad pointed out, people who are "bothered" by the Islamic dress can make a citizens arrest, a position confirmed by national police. Other laws in the Netherlands are also subject to the citizens arrest clause and the obvious risk here is the ascent of the vigilante.

Even if you take human rights out of the equation – the European Court of Human Rights upheld France's ban– with little impact on enforcement, what utility do these restrictions serve that are for all intents and purposes aimed at the Islamic dress?

Face coverings aren't the issue, better communication in the spirit of "living together" as France claims, is not the reason, and nothing has suggested that these measures have improved society or the lives of the women the measures are geared at.

The clothes are not the offending item, it's a visible idea of a Muslim that is offensive to lawmakers who are dog-whistling to their nationalist voters, and in the Netherlands they make up 20 percent of the electorate.

With such political conditions it's hard to see that this creeping appeasment of the far right will reverse anytime soon.

In the meantime the futile policy of banning "face coverings" can only lead to greater rights abuses and potential violence under the guise of justice and a fringe idea of democracy.

Sophia Akram is a researcher and communications professional with a special interest in human rights particularly across the Middle East.

Follow her on Twitter: @mssophiaakram

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.