Femke Halsema, Amsterdam’s mayor, had already declared her opposition, insisting that “hauling someone out of the tram for wearing a niqab” would not be “fitting” in the Dutch capital. But now officials in Rotterdam and Utrecht have suggested the same, as have the operators of transport companies, hospitals and schools.
“You are not going to stop the bus for half an hour for someone wearing a burqa,” Pedro Peters, chairman of the Dutch Public Transport Association, told NU.nl, a leading Dutch online newspaper. “We are also not allowed to refuse anyone because we have a transport obligation,” he said.
Peters also noted that Dutch police have indicated to his department that a report of a woman wearing a burqa won’t be a priority. “They have indicated that they will be on the spot within half an hour after receiving a report,” he told NU.nl. “But you won’t stop the bus for half an hour, and the police also say that they won’t go after the bus.”
Known as the Partial Ban on Face-Covering Clothing Act, the law prohibits individuals from wearing face-covering garments in government buildings such as schools, hospitals and even public transport. Women and men wearing face-covering garments can be turned away if they enter any of those facilities. If they refuse to uncover their faces, they can be fined at least 150 euros and arrested.
Hospitals and other emergency services have also flagged their obligation to help all those in need, regardless of their attire when they enter the building.
A spokesperson for Utrecht’s University Medical Center told NU.nl that a hospital’s primary task was to provide care above all else. “We will do that, too.”
Although this particular law also bans ski masks, full-size helmets and other face-covering garments from government buildings, its subtext is clear.
The burqa ban was initially passed in 2016 in the Dutch parliament’s lower house by the coalition government of Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who at the time was trying to stave off what seemed an existential political threat in the form of Geert Wilders’s far-right, anti-Islam Freedom Party.
Rutte won reelection in 2017, and the burqa ban passed in the parliament’s upper house last year.
No one knows the exact number of Dutch women who wear the burqa. According to RTL, during discussions around the bill after its introduction in parliament, the figure most commonly cited was 150. But other estimates have placed the figure higher, at about 400.
The total population of the Netherlands is approximately 17 million.
As elsewhere in Europe, notably France, which banned the burqa in 2011, political life in the Netherlands in recent years has been marked by considerable anxiety over visible signs of Islam.
A turning point was the November 2004 murder of the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh outside his home in Amsterdam. Van Gogh had recently produced a film that sharply criticized Islam’s treatment of women; his assailant was a Dutch citizen of Moroccan origin. Initial discussions of a possible burqa ban began shortly after that murder.
Amnesty International has opposed the law. “Women have the right to chose what to wear,” the advocacy group tweeted on Thursday. “It’s simple.”
In 2014, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that such bans do not violate the European Convention on Human Rights. But logistics, rather than legality, may turn out to be the more significant challenge.