How Dutch politicians, whilst promoting freedom and equality, decided upon a partial ban on the face veil

During a debate in Dutch Parliament in 2000 about integration policy, the social-democrats (PvdA) argued against a one-size fits all approach with regard to regulating the variety of value systems while also stating: “…with respect to the constitutional rights which guarantee freedom of religion in our country and respecting the careful approach that serves a state in this area, on the basis of constitutional equality boundaries emerge with regard to the social consequences for groups and individuals, that arise from those other value systems. Examples are female circumcision and honour killings. It also begs the question as to whether a woman, whose face is largely invisible, can participate in our society. She cannot be identified by a third party, contrary to women with headscarves who are able to fully integrate in society and make a valuable contribution.”

In 2000, using very carefully chosen words, the social-democrats (PvdA) question the position of women who wear a face veil in what is, to my knowledge, the first ever airing of this issue in the Dutch Parliament.

After the social democrats raised the issue in 2000, nothing was heard for some time until, in 2005, the Freedom Party, led by Geert Wilders, and (separately) the conservative liberal party, the VVD, proposed a full ban. In 2011 the government (then a coalition by the conservative liberal VVD and the Christian-Democrats CDA and supported by the Freedom Party), put forward a new proposal: a partial ban. After this government coalition collapsed, a new government (comprising the VVD and PvdA) was formed and, in 2013, a new proposal for a partial ban was submitted to Parliament.

Now, 18 years after the remarks by the social-democrats, Dutch Parliament has agreed to a partial ban on face coverings, but only for one group: Muslim women. Although the text of the law itself is neutral, the list of exceptions is not as it leaves only two possible groups who could be targeted by the ban: masked robbers, people with helmets in health care and education, and women wearing a face veil. The current government (VVD, progressive liberal D66, CDA and orthodox Christian party Christian Union) defended the bill in the Senate. Yesterday, a majority voted in favour of the partial ban.

A partial ban

The agreed ban does not go as far as it does, for example, in France and Belgium where a general ban on wearing the face veil in public places is implemented since 2011. The Dutch ban applies to all face coverings including ski-masks and helmets and is not going to be enforced on public streets. The government defended the partial ban earlier by stating that people should be allowed to appear in public with their faces covered, if they wanted to, but that in government buildings and in health and education settings, such as hospitals and schools, people need to be able to look at each other in the face. The proposal will affect relatively few people as only a few hundred Muslim women in the Netherlands wear a face veil.

According to the Dutch government, the ban (of the face veil in particular) is justified because the government has to regulate ‘living together’ in cases where there are conflicting interests and different individual freedoms and constitutional rights. In this case the government, by limiting the wearing of the face veil, claims to protect the rights and freedoms of others in situations where there is an extraordinary interest in maintaining a high quality of service and a safe environment, such as in education, care services, public transport and public buildings. This extraordinary level of interest has been sustained throughout the debates, as anthropologist Annelies Moors has shown in her research, by continuously emphasizing the public’s strong antipathy to the face veil. In the Senate, the debate centred mostly on the relevance and necessity of imposing a partial ban as a lot of politicians appeared unclear about what problem this ban would actually solve.

Living together

It is the argument about ‘living together’ that is particularly interesting here. We heard this same argument used in legitimisations of the French and Belgian face veil bans and, in a landmark ruling, European judges of the ECHR declared that the preservation of a certain idea of “living together” was the “legitimate aim” of the French and Belgian authorities. This idea of ‘living together’ refers to the human interactions that take place in a given territory and to the idea of shared basic values operating within that territory. However, the concept ‘living together’ has a particular meaning in the case of banning the face veil as it interferes with an individual’s right to have a personal identity and self-expression because that particular identity and self-expression (the niqabi woman and no other) is deemed unacceptable.

The justifications for this ban are weak, to say the least. In explaining why a face veil is unacceptable the government referred to (subjective feelings of ) insecurity and problems with ‘open communication’. However, there are only few cases of employers expressing problems with niqabi women, and the medical sector and other institutions have declared such a ban is unnecessary. The Dutch Council of State (the main advisory board for the government) has advised against the ban because it deemed the ban as an unnecessary violation of freedom of religion. The safety of the women involved was not a part of the political debates at all.

Of course, being safe and able to communicate are rather vague expressions for determining what the idea of living together actually involves and no clear definition is given. We should, therefore, recognise this partial ban as the cultural product it is; one which political elites can use to negotiate, determine and enforce their own interpretation of the Dutch way of life and their understanding of what ‘living together’ ought to mean. By implementing this partial ban and justifying it by referring to the idea of ‘living together’, the Dutch state claims to be acting on behalf of the general public and imposes a particular idea of what is normal and acceptable dress as its ground rule for conformity, saying, in The Netherlands ‘we’ do not wear a face veil and in those places,  we deem to be of extra public interest ‘we’ forbid you to as well.


Management of race, religion and gender: racial secularism

‘Face-covering clothing is prohibited in education, care [services], public transport and government buildings. In the public area, the police can order the face-covering clothing [to be removed] for identification purposes. Those who wear these clothes do not meet the requirements for social assistance benefit.’

This is the main text underpinning the law on banning face-covering. Interestingly, the text itself is completely neutral. The fact that such a law is designed in this way against Muslim women is telling in itself. It demonstrates, among other things, how secularism can be used as a weapon to enforce racial and sexist exclusion. The partial ban on face covering specifically targets Muslim women wearing the face veil. This is evident when one looks at the history of the proposal, a history in which only these women feature, and no other example is given and, as my colleague Annelies Moors has shown in her work with the niqabi women, many of the debates focussed on Islam’s impact on the position of women. And as one of the (independent) senators stated in the Parliamentary debate: “This law will not bring about many changes in practice, but it gives the message that this form of Islam does not really fit in our society, because it is disruptive”. This resonates with the Dutch debates about Islam, migration and social cohesion which have taken place over the last 40 years or so. Notwithstanding the image of the Netherlands as a tolerant society, the belief that migrants and their culture pose a danger was present from the earliest days of Dutch minority policies and was initially related to the belief that migrant cultures, and then, more specifically, Islam, were a potential threat to the rule of law and social cohesion. And, in case of conflict, so-called Dutch ‘cultural achievements’ (later to be called Dutch core values) had to be defended. During the 1990s and more strongly after 9/11, Dutch values with regard to secular and sexual freedoms became the standard for evaluating the integration of migrants. Indeed, after 9/11, the debates about integration and security focused almost entirely on Islam and Muslims and their alleged threat to Dutch society.

Yet, it is significant that the ban on wearing the face veil is not a full ban but only applies to particular public places; it is also important to note that the text of the law is of itself neutral. A full ban and a text clearly devised against Islam would probably not have been successful in the Dutch political climate. The current and former governments have consistently stated they are not planning to impose a general ban. But, we do see a distinction here that is important and that relates to the Dutch view of what is an ‘acceptable Islam’ (women with headscarves, for example, even though there is opposition to this as well) and an ‘unacceptable Islam’ (women who wear a face veil). Again, like with ‘living together’, it is unclear what an acceptable or unacceptable Islam actually is: this has to be produced through these debates.  In these debates, the latter group is not so much seen as oppressed and lacking emancipation (as is sometimes the case in discussions about women with headscarves) but as a group that ostensibly rejects Dutch society and one of the so-called Dutch core values: gender equality. This group, according to many, is therefore not oppressed, but, as Nadia Fadil recently explained in reference to the Belgian debates: ‘The niqab was not only understood as the ultimate symbol of women’s oppression (it was described by many as a “mobile prison”), but also as a provocation and, in some instances, a sign of support of terrorism.’

Pragmatic Islamophobia

One could argue this partial pan is also the result of  conservative liberals, social-democrats and Christian-Democrats increasingly adjusting themselves to the rhetoric of the radical right, but I think it is more complex. Elsewhere I have argued that the racialisation of Muslims, albeit an always contested and incomplete process, has transformed a religiously diverse group of Dutch citizens into a separate and exceptional category of people who are problematised in policies and debates. This racialisation of Muslims in Dutch policies is not something the radical right has decided upon. What we are examining here is the mainstream policy and debate generated by conservative liberals (VVD of PM Rutte), progressive liberals (D66), social-democrats (PvdA) and Christian-Democrats (CDA) since the year 2000. What radical right leaders such as the late Fortuyn and Wilders picked up on was the pre-existing racialisation in Dutch society with its focus on culture, threat and religion. What they added was a politicisation of culture by singling out migrants, Moroccan-Dutch people and Muslims and their culture and religion, while the mainstream parties tended to de-politicise issues of migration and integration.

As opposed to politicians of the radical right, these mainstream politicians usually do not, and are very careful not to, tar all Muslims with the same brush. Instead, they distinguish two types of Muslim: those whose religion may be at odds with so-called Dutch core values but who might still be integrated and those whose religion makes them hostile to the Dutch core values and therefore have to be rejected somehow. Just as they had done in relation to the general development of the racialisation of Muslims, in the case of the niqab ban, the mainstream parties first focused on defending so-called Dutch ‘cultural achievements’ and ‘core values’ (in this case equality, freedom of religion) against ‘other value systems’ (in particular Islam), the radical right subsequently exploited this by using a more confrontational rhetoric and then the mainstream parties toned down that rhetoric which they often find too provocative, injurious and extreme.

Instead, these parties devise a more pragmatic solution which would have support in the Dutch Parliament. The focus of the Parliamentary debates was centred on ‘living together’, in particular on (feelings of) insecurity and being uncomfortable as well as on problems in communicating and ending this old discussion, combined with the focus on relevance and necessity. Consider also the remarkable positions taken up by the progressive liberals of D66 and the social-democrats (PvdA). In the first debates about this proposal D66 rejected the proposal and it also did in the Senate. It was however a minister of D66 (as part of the current government) that defended the bill in the Senate. The PvdA together with the conservative liberal VVD initiated the current bill when it was part of the former government. As part of the current opposition they rejected the ban in the Senate. It is these pragmatic approaches, glossing over the more fundamental Islamophobic and sexist aspects of the proposal, which allows an exceptional measure to become part of a normal procedure and a neutral text to become a form of racial secularism.

This goes to show that, although this mainstream rhetoric may appear less racist (even if only slightly so) it is currently much more powerful than that of the radical right. The latter do not make laws, the mainstream parties do. And that is precisely why the normalisation of Islamophobia and sexism as building blocks of racial secularism is so dangerous.

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