Dutch Weigh Ban on Traditional Islamic Dress

The Dutch government is debating whether to make it a crime to wear a burqa, a form of traditional female Islamic dress that covers the entire body except for the eyes. Supporters of the ban say the burqa oppresses women, but opponents say the ban is unnecessary and racist.

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Far from the Middle East, Islamic dress has become the subject of intense debate in the Netherlands. There is a proposal to ban the burqa, which covers the entire body, except for the eyes. Supporters of the ban say the burqa oppresses women. Opponents call the ban unnecessary and racist.

NPR's Rachel Martin reports.

RACHEL MARTIN reporting:

Behind the Dutch Parliament in The Hague is one of the Netherlands diverse Muslim neighborhoods home to immigrants from Turkey, Morocco, Afghanistan, and Surinam. At a corner bakery, customers line up for sweet pistachio pastries, and piping hot donor kabobs; one of the customers, Sasari Oktonentaski (ph), is a Kurdish Turk who's lived in the Netherlands for two decades. He says the proposal to ban the burqa will improve live for Muslim women.

Mr. SASARI OKTONENTASKI (Resident): (Speaking a foreign language)

MARTIN: A woman is a woman as well, and she should be free he says. No woman wants to wear the burqa or to be fully covered. If she does this it's because she's being forced by a man. Before he can finish, the young woman behind the counter wearing a black, floor-length robe and headscarf interrupts. Women don't cover up because of what their husband's tell them. 24-year-old Golson Eridon (ph) It's their choice. They follow their heart and the tenants of the Koran. Eridan says Islamic dress is being mischaracterized and that breeds discrimination.

She says she was recently turned down for a job because she wears a headscarf. Two or three years ago it wasn't a problem to find a job here, she says; but now it is. In 2004, the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was murdered in Amsterdam. His killer said Van Gogh's films had insulted Islam. Since then the Dutch have been examining questions of religious tolerance and multi-culturalism.

There have been a number of controversial new proposals to encourage the integration of immigrant communities in the Netherlands, including the proposal to ban women from wearing the burqa. The ban was pitched by conservative Dutch Parliament member Geert Wilders (ph), who says the burqa is a medieval sign of oppression.

Mr. GEERT WILDERS (Dutch Parliament: We don't treat women like this in the Netherlands. We want the Islamic community in the Netherlands to fully integrate in our society, and if you go walking down the streets and you cannot really show yourself, it's a big no to Dutch society.

MARTIN: Wilders was included on a list of so-called infidels attached to the slain body of van Gogh. Two years later Wilders still moves around with armed bodyguards and lives under state protection. Like van Gogh, Wilders publicly condemned parts of Islam as discriminatory against women and threatening to Dutch culture.

Mr. WILDERS: Of course we were, and still are, a very tolerant country, but we get much too far our tolerance.

MARTIN: Since very few women wear the burqa in the Netherlands, some estimates say around a dozen, the ban is mostly symbolic; but to some Wilders proposal demonstrates a growing paranoia about Islam in Holland.

Mr. JAN RATH (ph) (Institute of Migration and Ethnic Studies at Amsterdam University): This is nonsense. Who is wearing a burqa in the Netherlands? Nobody does.

MARTIN: Jan Rath is the Director of the Institute of Migration and Ethnic Studies at Amsterdam University. Rath says such a ban would only reinforce perceptions among Holland's more than one million Muslims that they and their culture are not welcome.

Mr. RATH: The message, exclusion. The message is you are here and that's problematic enough, and you have to get rid of this foolish identity of yours, and I would say that's a highly undemocratic message.

MARTIN: The Rotterdam City Council recently proposed that residents should only speak Dutch in public, raise their children in the Dutch language, and should not discriminate against women, homosexuals, or atheists. A government minister has suggested those rules should be adopted nationally. It's a move Jan Rath says would undermine another Dutch value, tolerance.

Mr. RATH: The idea that there is only one culture is silly. There is not just one culture in the Netherlands. I mean multi-culturist elements are part and parcel of Dutch society. So, and that's why I think it doesn't make sense to say, well, we don't like it and we're going to stop it.

MARTIN: A majority in the Dutch Parliament has already approved the ban on the burqa. Now, it's up to the Minister of Justice to decide whether or not the ban in Constitutional.

Rachel Martin, NPR News.

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