Can Europe Make It?

Banning a burqa that doesn't exist – the cowardice of Dutch politics and the courage of those who resist

A law directed at a few hundred women simultaneously distils and energizes the much more comprehensive Islamophobia that is its origin and its end.

Markha Valenta
12 August 2019
Hundreds of people gather in The Hague in silence to show their solidarity with women wearing niqabs. August 9, 2019.
Hundreds of people gather in The Hague in silence to show their solidarity with women wearing niqabs. August 9, 2019.
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SOPA Images/PA. All rights reserved.

It took the Dutch government fourteen years to implement the ‘Burqa Ban.’ First passed in 2005 by a majority in the Lower House, it then failed to pass constitutional muster. Multiple revisions and multiple governing coalitions later, it finally was confirmed by both houses of parliament. Now it has come into force.

Western Europe has been accumulating prohibitions. Most recently, Denmark completely banned the Islamic facial veil, as have France, Belgium and Austria before it. Germany has banned it for motorists and is moving to eradicate it in as many public areas as possible. The Dutch ban applies to some public spaces but not others: government buildings, schools, hospitals and public transportation. Many Dutch, however, have the mistaken impression that the law applies to all public space.

This repression is part of a European-wide surge in Islamophobic symbolic politics with brutally real effects.

The politics of naming

While the law for years has informally been called the ‘Burqa Ban’, there are no women in the Netherlands known to wear a burqa (full body covering, often blue, with a mesh in front of the eyes).

Instead, during the early years of the Dutch mission in the Afghan War, the term was popularized in the Netherlands as a name for a different Islamic facial veil, the niqab (full covering, often black, with an open slot that enables the eyes to see and be seen directly). What is targeted by the Burqa Ban, then, is the wearing of niqabs.

Politicians and much of the media are finely attuned to the differences. During parliamentary debates, politicians continually speak of ‘burqas and niqabs’, even as the media has taken to ritually flashing a sign visually explaining the differences between the burqa, niqab, chador (full body covering with open face), and hijab (hair scarf). Yet the term ‘burqa’ proliferates irrepressibly.

By association, the ‘burqa’ calls to mind a tribal, patriarchal, violent and backward life where women are imagined to live a brutalized, passive, and pathetic existence. In the popular and political imagination, the presence of Islam threatens to infect beautiful, open, Enlightened and secular Dutch society with this cancer. As the story goes, migrants come here, bringing their traditions, refusing to adapt and wishing to Islamicise the whole of Dutch society. Muslim men repress and dominate their wives and daughters with a heavy hand and want to do the same with everyone else. All they need is a chance. ‘Burqa’ captures this narrative in a nutshell.

The reality of Dutch women’s facial veiling is strikingly different, an inconvenience which both politicians and media have done their utter best to ignore. Not only are there no known burqas in the Netherlands, but the typical Niqabi is a young woman, often a Dutch convert, deeply inspired by her religious journey even to the point of falling in love with Islam. For some years – sometimes a few, sometimes many – she takes to wearing the niqab – sometimes with great consistency, sometimes intermittently – and experiences religious pleasure in so doing. All this is well-known to the politicians: the Dutch anthropologist Annelies Moors has written on this for many years, including an extensive and publicly available report that she produced for the Dutch government in 2009 based on in-depth interviews.

In Professor Moors’ research, in media interviews, on social media and informally, Niqabis consistently tell of immediate family that more often than not are deeply opposed to their facial veiling: husbands might find it too dangerous (given public aggression), others in the Niqabis’ intimate circle find it too extreme and there are stories of mothers who break off relations with their daughters once they take this step. Other mothers, if for example they are Moroccan, are happy to walk beside their veiled daughters when visiting Morocco but will drop them like a hot potato when they return to Dutch streets.

The decision to wear a niqab, then, is neither lightly made nor easily sustained. In most cases, both the external society and the immediate social environment actively discourage any such thing. Those women who do wear the niqab in the face of this conjoined pressure are more often going against, rather than satisfying, the wishes and norms of their families.

Correspondingly, there are very few Niqabis in the Netherlands (much as in Denmark, Belgium, Germany, Austria and France) – no more than several hundred.

An overlapping patchwork of anti-Islam politics

To focus on how few women are targeted by the Burqa Ban is dangerously misleading, however. Not only the women themselves are impacted, but so too are all those in their immediate circle – children, husbands, parents, friends, neighbours, colleagues – who are witness to, fearful, and angry at the increased aggression, reduced mobility and forced work-arounds that are imposed on women they love and cherish.

The denigration entailed in the law then ‘leaks’ into the lives of other visibly Muslim women who do not veil their faces. On the ground, in streets, shops and offices, the law’s effect is to nurture increased harassment, denigration and violence against these Muslim women too – itself part and parcel of the comprehensive aggression towards European Muslims’ public presence and visibility. With the targeting of mosques, schools, politicians, holidays and festivities, leisure, sports, worship, arts, sartorial styles, communal initiations, dietary rules and greeting rituals, all the spaces of European Muslim life today pulse to the steady drum beat of insult and harassment.

Survey after survey has revealed profound prejudice against Muslims. Indeed, many Europeans yearn to eradicate European Muslims from the public domain. This cannot be achieved without resorting to a type of blatant discrimination and violence most politicians are not yet willing to endorse. For the moment then, the libidinal charge of political Islamophobia is being funnelled towards the legislative decimation of the most vulnerable element and population: Niqabi women. In this way, a law directed at a nearly non-existent, unprotected and unrepresented population – a few hundred women – simultaneously distils and energizes the much more comprehensive Islamophobia that is its origin and its end.

Citizens’ arrests

While similar to existing bans in other countries, the Dutch version includes a critically new component: the possibility of fellow citizens forcefully detaining Muslim women. A national newspaper explained, ‘if you are bothered by a woman wearing a burqa, [you are] allowed … to carry out a citizen’s arrest … holding the suspect to the ground [until the police arrives].’

This possibility of citizen-on-citizen violence has been shocking.

In one fell swoop, a Muslim woman wearing a facial veil is of the same criminal order as an escaping thief, murderer or rapist. This possibility of citizen-on-citizen violence has been shocking. Within memory, it has not been publicly raised as an option in relation to any other new bill or law. The law makes of the Niqabi a marked target, as the state shares its monopoly on violence with ordinary citizens. It highlights Niqabi women as an exceptional threat to the collective public body, national hygiene and psychic well-being (“if you are bothered …”) such that any and all citizens have been delegated the right to gratuitously use force to cleanse the public space of them.

The facial veil is illegal, but violence against women wearing facial veils is perfectly legal. In combination with the Dutch public’s complete confusion about where the law actually is in effect (specific public spaces but not others), this is terribly dangerous. It means that Niqabis have to take into account that in any space, at any moment, a fellow citizen might throw them to the ground. Given the intensity of anti-Muslim and anti-Niqabi feeling, the fear is realistic.

So far, within the first ten days, the increase in violence has been incremental yet clear: a woman riding her moped towards a Niqabi without stopping, close enough to drive over her daughters’ foot; another Niqabi being harassed in a grocery store by a fellow shopper telling her nastily that she cannot shop there (though the law allows this); another being told by personnel to leave a playground with her children and sister-in-law (where she is allowed to be); another being accosted on the street, a man walking tightly by her side while snarling that she is breaking the law (she was not); and another being harassed by passing cars, one after another yelling at her and her two small children as she biked alongside a busy road.

There is no punishment for this behaviour, it is endless and it is getting worse.

Left collaboration

The Far Right is of course brutally gleeful. Our national Islamophobe Geert Wilders – who was the first to table the burqa ban in parliament – now calls for criminalizing all Islamic headscarves, while his followers are howling in the background, ready ‘to go hunting’ for Niqabis.

This is vicious but par for the course.

More subtly vicious has been the willingness of centrist and key progressive parties to follow the Far Right’s lead. In the Lower House, virtually all parties voted for the current law: the Far Right (Wilders), the Right (Liberals and Christian parties) and the majority of the secular Left (Labour, Socialists and the Party for Animals).

Particularly important has been the role of the Labour Party. Historically, this has been one of the largest political parties, but since the beginning of the millennium it has been struggling. As the Burqa Ban was taking shape, its leader – Wouter Bos (2002-2010) – liked to trumpet his disgust at Islamic facial veiling. The position was meant to advertise the party’s shift rightward and performatively enact its new commitment to engaging in hard, confrontational debates with (Muslim) minorities about their ostensible shortcomings and failures. Under the subsequent Labour leader Diederik Samsom, a coalition with the Liberals in 2012 formally included the Burqa Ban in their contractual governance covenant. Entitled ‘Building Bridges,’ the Liberal-Labour team built its alliance across the backs of Muslim women. The Labour Minister of Internal Affairs, Ronald Plasterk, subsequently played a critical role in getting the bill passed in the Lower House.

Along the way, the Labour Party, much like the Right and Far Right, was perfectly willing to disregard the very critical responses of the government’s own Council of State and its Equality Treatment Commission, as well as of Niqabi women themselves (who sent a petition in the name of dozens of organizations to both houses of parliament), individual legal experts, the Clara Wichman (feminist) legal foundation, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the UN Human Rights Committee (which condemned the French ban).

Recently Amnesty International launched a very critical video, comparing the Dutch state’s attempt to strip cloth off women’s faces to Iran’s law imposing it on women’s heads. Highly infuriated, the former Labour Minister Ronald Plasterk responded that this showed the bankruptcy of Amnesty International as an organization. It was “especially sad” he wrote (echoing Trump), “that what was once a charity that fought torture all over the world has become a kooky action group that justifies repression.” Not a single Labour politician disagreed with him. It is a sign of how deeply much of the Dutch Left has internalized the norms and sensibilities of the nationalist, Islamophobic Right.

The notion that it can only be others who violate human rights… makes them blind to the vicious, state-enabled discrimination in our own modern European societies.

Deeply implanted in politicians like Plasterk is the notion that it can only be others – Third World dictators and such – who violate human rights. It makes them blind to the vicious, state-enabled discrimination in our own modern European societies. It makes them blind to the violence they legislate and the lives they endanger. It makes them deaf to the words and stories of Niqabis themselves. The politicians’ abstract image of the repressed and oppressed Muslim woman is more real to them than reality itself. When they have to choose between their fantasies and actual Muslim women, it is their fantasies that win. Those fantasies, after all, are perfectly aligned with their political interests.

The law, then, entails a full frontal assault on the Rule of Law. It is arbitrary, driven by irrational fears and prejudices, singling out a minority for criminalization and persecution. Forged in the heart of western Europe, it marks the hollowing out of the European Convention of Human Rights. The ban fundamentally violates Dutch Muslim women’s freedom of religion, freedom of expression and freedom from discrimination.

Well aware of this, the politicians have done everything possible to mask it.

The politics of mendacity

The original proposal was to ban Islamic facial veils in all public spaces. Over time, it became clear this would not pass Dutch constitutional safeguards against discrimination and the law was adapted. Along the way, they borrowed from the French and Belgians, who had implemented complete bans in 2011. Now, rather than specifying Islamic facial veiling by name, what is proscribed by the law is ‘facial-covering’ – referencing motorcycle helmets, balaclavas and veils. And rather than cultural dominance, the bill legitimates itself with an appeal to shared norms and necessities of open communication.

All this, however, has not transformed the vicious ugliness of the law: the government’s own Equal Treatment Commission reviewed and shredded the proposed law in 2012 as discriminatory, disproportional, distorting, paternalistic, arbitrary, dissimulating, contradictory and counterproductive.

At its most intriguing the Commission’s report notes that because of the gaping shortcomings in the law, it could create a situation in which a women wearing a niqab (the report uses this term consistently) who was detained for breaking the law, could then herself on the basis of that detention bring a claim of religious and gender discrimination.

Partially in response to issues raised in the report, the ban transmorphed from a comprehensive prohibition to a site-specific one. Now only key public spaces are forbidden terrain: government buildings, public transportation, hospitals and schools. In other words, the target is these Muslim women’s access to government civil, social and police services; geographic mobility; health care; education and those whom they entrust to educate their children.

The women are being forced to choose between their religious life and their civic rights, health, security, public parenting, access to schooling, and freedom of movement.

The women are being forced to choose between their religious life and their civic rights, health, security, public parenting, access to schooling, and freedom of movement. This is the Dutch state’s brutal punishment for their refusal to obey and submit.

The white nationalist loophole

In order to safeguard non-Muslim Dutch from accidental side-effects, the politicians sneakily slipped in some tell-tale exceptions. The most striking of these is face coverings that ‘in line with social opinion’ correspond to a festive or cultural activity such as St. Nicholas, Carnival or a wedding. Likewise, face paint – common at sports events, among others – is also exempted. With a rather wicked thoughtfulness, the architects of this law have built into it what we might call a ‘white nationalist loophole’ that consciously seeks to safeguard Dutch culture even as it strives to eradicate (an element of) Islamic culture.

The cowardice of silence

The problem this bill is meant to solve is not one in society, but one in the chambers of the legislature: the desperate, knee-knocking fear the country’s main parties feel in the face of the Islamophobes breathing down their necks, charming their way onto stages and television screens, and spewing their filth on the internet. The politicians haven’t the chutzpah to stand up to them, even as they share their prejudices enough to vote with them; so they are shamefacedly joining the Islamophobes while pretending to do no such thing.

Even those who voted against the law remain silent. Unwilling to publicly risk opposing it, they choose the route of the cowards: to watch what happens as if they merely are bystanders and not the people’s representatives, tasked with guarding their security and their rights enshrined in the Constitution itself.

Even those who voted against the law remain silent.

The collaboration between Far Right leaders, Left collaborators and silent political bystanders shows the bankruptcy of the entire Dutch political establishment at the national level when it comes to protecting Muslim citizens. The national establishment is too cowardly, too uninterested and too ideologically corrupted to speak out against the systemic aggression, denigration, hatred and discrimination their own citizens face.

These are so well-documented that the European Commission in its fifth report on the Netherlands (2019) speaks of Dutch “mainstream political discourse and media reporting” as “strongly influenced by a xenophobic, fear-fuelling rhetoric.” Rather than reversing this, Dutch politics instead has added one further critical bit of Islamophobic legislation to the pile and then stayed mouse still as it burst onto society.

Demonstration against the burqa ban in The Hague, Netherlands - 09 Aug 2019.
Demonstration against the burqa ban in The Hague, Netherlands - 09 Aug 2019. | SOPA Images/PA. All rights reserved.

The governing apparatus resists

At that moment, the first indications that the ban was in trouble had already been emerging. The directors of public transportation companies made clear that they would not be implementing the law. The idea of holding up a tram or train or bus for half an hour while waiting for the police to arrive to fine a Niqabi was simply untenable. Hospitals agreed: they were not about to refuse health care to anyone, this would violate fundamental principles.

Representative bodies of schools were resentful: they did not want the government to intrude on their right to decide school dress policies themselves. Universities took opposing stances: some cooperating, others actively countering, others non-committal. All emphasized that they have not had any problems with Niqabis and had no need of the law. Naturally, this was embarrassing for the government.

Worse still, mayors of a number of major cities, with the GreenLeft Femke Halsema of Amsterdam leading the pack, indicated that the law profoundly went against everything for which their cities stand. In coordination with the police and the public prosecutor, a decision had been made that there were too many other, much more pressing concerns for the urban police that would take priority. Behind the scenes, the Minister of the Interior Kasja Ollengren – sometimes portrayed as a possible future Prime Minister – sent a directive to the mayors worded in such a fashion that they just might interpret the implementation of the ‘Burqa Ban’ as a matter of choice rather than absolute necessity.

A few politicians huffed and puffed that this was intolerable, that the law is the law is the law, and must be fully acted upon. Wilders fumed that this was the same as allowing a thief to escape arrest. He and others demanded that Ollengren send a new letter. Clearly, however, the state’s governing apparatus was variously indifferent to resistant when it came to wasting precious resources carrying out an absurd and nasty bit of symbolic politics.

So far, so good.

Then came the newspaper’s open invitation to citizens’ arrests.

Burqa buddies

When this possibility of citizen violence hit the news, the issue of the burqa ban went viral. Social media, the national news, talk shows, current events shows, women’s magazines and others – all except our national politicians were attending to the ban in a dramatic national debate. The debate was all the more remarkable because for all the fourteen years leading up to this law, that is precisely the thing that has been absent.

All except our national politicians were attending to the ban in a dramatic national debate.

The possibility that women wearing niqabs might suddenly, randomly, violently be tackled in public spaces by men and women inclined to such aggression brought home the inhumane essence of the law in a fashion that no reasoned argument had been able to. At the same time, for Niqabis it made their vulnerability to violence more intensely tangible than ever before, an inescapable aspect of every step outside their front door. The impact is exhausting, a daily calculus of risk no one else knows.

The effect of all this was like nothing seen before in the Netherlands. Within short order, the site ‘Boerkabuddies’ [Burqa Buddies] was created on Facebook. Here people could register themselves by city if they were willing to accompany a travelling Niqabi, to keep her safe, whatever was necessary. By the end of the week, the site had 6,000 likes, with people from all walks of life registering to help: fellow Muslims with very different ways of practising Islam; people of Jewish descent remembering what it meant to have Jews targeted for violence; feminists committed to women’s right to self-expression; atheists averse to state dictatorship; queers angered by this denial of a right to public visibility and public safety; a shy woman from the countryside, unused to public activism, who simply couldn’t abide to see such discrimination; an older Dutch couple whose best friend is a Niqabi; and many, many more.

The testimonies, support, love kept pouring in for days and days.

And not just love but also new public discussions: extremely patient and polite attempts to understand by non-religious, white Dutch how a piece a cloth could be meaningful, important, even religious. What is that feeling? How do you explain religious feeling to someone who has never felt it? And how can it be a rule or obligation to wear a facial veil, if some Muslim women do it and most don’t? And how does the relation between absolute obligation, relativizing context, and individual choice work?

On all sides, people were touched by this sudden, raw, direct, personal and intimate contact that so suddenly was breaching and bridging the profound walls that have existed between the mass of everyday whited Dutch society and Muslim Dutch lives.

Soon, the Facebook page had turned into WhatApp groups, ‘Niqab Buddies’, one for each province, plus a general chat group sharing experiences, volunteering to help each other, sharing prayers, sharing stories, answering more questions from non-Muslims and new Muslims. Those coordinating the groups had to work night and day – while still caring for families and children – to try to keep up with the flood of registrations. In line with orthodox Muslim norms, the groups were gender segregated, only women. It was precisely the orthodox sensibilities of the women that ensured that this massive national support infrastructure was entirely directed, staffed, and organized by women, for women.

Meanwhile a local progressive, Muslim-inspired political party called NIDA (Rotterdam/The Hague) was the first party to dare to loudly decry the ban. It offered to pay the fines of any Niqabis and set up a fund for them. Another local party – an intersectional feminist one from Amsterdam (BIJ1) – joined in with Burqa Buddies and its leader spoke out critically in the media. The grassroots organization Meld Islamofobie! [Report Islamophobia!] – created in 2015 by young Muslim women to compensate for a structural lack of interest by the Dutch government – was active on all fora, raising awareness, encouraging women to film, document and formally register all attacks on them, the better to challenge the law.

Just then, the Pride Canal Parade swept through Amsterdam, and a local Labour politician prominently wore a yellow burqa in a rainbow gaggle of burqas protesting the ban. Fellow members of the Labour Party, so silent about the ban itself, publicly reprimanded him and his twitter account exploded in fury.

A local Labour politician prominently wore a yellow burqa in a rainbow gaggle of burqas protesting the ban.

The protest

Meanwhile, a group of Niqabi women immediately began organizing a silent protest in The Hague, the silence in line with particular orthodox Muslim sensibilities regarding public activism. Discussions about whether or not such protest was in accord with Islam would appear and disappear in social media exchanges. A crucial, sensitive and complicated discussion. The question of how to travel. Whether or not to bring children. How to guess the dangers they might confront. Men were invited too, but this was first and foremost Niqabi women’s protest.

Men were invited too, but this was first and foremost Niqabi women’s protest.

When the protest happened, it was 150 people, a tiny group (many were on vacation, it being the height of vacation season, or had stayed home out of fear). Yet it was truly vibrant, special, the smallest of minorities – heard nationally for the first time (though Niqabis have been active and mobilized for more than a decade) – publicly asserting their civic right to state recognition, state protection, and equal rights. Niqabis were joined by dozens of others – including Muslims who had until then had an aversion to the niqab, non-Muslims long committed to anti-discrimination, and those newly mobilized by the events of the last week. All recognized that Niqabis’ rights were their rights. Only when all citizens are equal and safe from state violence, can any citizen be equal and safe.

The future

For many non-Muslim Dutch, this week was the first time they heard a Niqabi speak for herself rather than her only being spoken about – as has been the national habit. Not all Dutch were happy, not all were touched. Outside Burqa Buddies the usual storms continued to rage on social media, in the populist press and in the comments sections under the news.

There is an immense anti-Islam fury deeply embedded in the soul of Europe today. One shocking moment, one inhumane law followed by one week of collective alliance to fight against it and keep each other safe are a sweet drop, but only a drop in an acid culture of Islamophobia.

There is an immense anti-Islam fury deeply embedded in the soul of Europe today.

Still: new alliances, sensibilities, infrastructures and practices are in place. The reach and influence of grassroots organizations like Meld Islamofobie and Blijf van mijn Niqaab af [Hands Off My Niqab] have grown, building on the work of a previous generation (Stop de Hetze!) [Stop the Smear Campaign!] The Niqab Buddies will continue. As I write, requests for accompaniment are coming in. Young Niqabis are finding their voice and gaining experience. Another protest is already being organized. And pockets of resistance in the governing apparatus are firmly, stubbornly in place.

The violence hidden in the Burqa Ban has been nakedly exposed. Like all Dutch laws, this law will be subject to review to evaluate its workings, its effects, and its effectiveness. One could hardly have hoped for a better demonstration of its dangerous, poisonous incompetence. Notwithstanding all those fiercely committed to keeping the law in place, those ready for the hard work of bringing it down are now more numerous and more diverse than ever before.

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