The Dutch cabinet is moving to criminalize the veils worn by some Muslim women, an illiberal measure that attacks the rights of women in the name of defending their rights.
The burka is hard to defend. It is a full-body garment that acts as a curtain between its wearers and the world around them. Even the eyes are hidden behind a screen. Muslim women who choose (or are compelled) to wear such traditional costumes are sending a disturbing message. It is not a fashion statement, it’s an expression of a belief that women and men are not equal, and that neither can be trusted in each other’s view. But who has empowered government to decide such an issue? What about other articles of clothing that serve as an expression of faith?
It is right to debate the place of the burka, and even the hijab, in liberal democracies. But to enact laws? A measure that would ban such garments among some public-sector workers, such as teachers, might at least be a defensible piece of legislation, worthy of public debate. After all, few parents would wish a burka-clad woman to serve as a role model for their daughter. However, even there the argument for a ban would be difficult to make.
But the Dutch law would fine any woman found wearing a burka in a public place €380. It suggests that in the Netherlands, as in France and Belgium before it, women have no right to choose what they wear, even if their choices are troubling or considered provocative.
The Dutch law does not appear to include the niqab, the face-covering veil worn by larger numbers of Muslim women, which is included in the bans previously adopted by France and Belgium. Instead, it is limited to the burka, which is estimated to be worn by only 100 women in all of the Netherlands. Surely this handful of women represents no threat to the Netherlands’ secularism, or Dutch liberal values. They do not merit the attention of Dutch authorities, and punishing them in this way amounts to an assault on individual rights.