First France, then Belgium, and as of Thursday, the Netherlands will also ban the burqa, and all other face-covering attire.
Violators will be asked to remove the covering, according to the new law, and if they refuse, will be fined €150.
Several Muslim organizations are planning to cover the cost of the fines. Others are calling the law an act of war and threatening jihad.
Anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders first introduced the law in 2006, aiming to ban the burqa, niqab, and other face coverings worn by Muslim women. It has since been expanded to include non-religious items in response to accusations that the law was discriminatory. Nonetheless, it is clear who is targeted by the rule, which lawmakers say is both a security measure and a gesture to support women who are forced to wear the veil against their will.
Officially, about 150 women are known to wear the niqab, or full black veil, in the Netherlands; another 300 or so are said to wear it on occasion. Although not officially the same as a burqa, a niqab is the garment most conservative Muslim women wear, and the two terms are often used interchangeably. Also forbidden under the new law are ski masks (balaclavas), motorcycle helmets, and costume masks. All of these are permitted in most public areas, including on the street, but will now be forbidden in hospitals and other health care facilities, government buildings, schools – including driving schools and similar training, and on public transportation, though they may be worn at bus stops and in train stations. Exceptions will be made for the use of surgical masks and other coverings necessary for work or sports.
But days before the law was to go into effect, lawmakers and Muslim groups began campaigning against it – some suggesting it does not go far enough, and others calling it an affront to civil rights, with one imam comparing the ban to the persecution of Jews during the Holocaust.
The problem, in part, goes back to a letter sent by Minister of Interior Affairs Kasja Ollongren to the various municipalities, in which enforcement of the law is described as optional: people violating the law, says the brief, "can" be asked to remove it or to leave, and if they refuse, the police "can" be summoned. Cabinet members have said that the "can" condition means that no one is required to do anything. Moreover, argues anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders, asking someone to please remove their face coverings or please to leave is "like asking a burglar if he would please leave your house, or really wants to break in and rob you."
And indeed, many cities have said they will put low priority on enforcing the law, including Amsterdam, where Mayor Femka Halsema said that she has no intention of allowing women to be dragged out of a tram because they wear a niqab. Moreover, she noted, there are more important things for the police to worry about.
Several institutions across the country have echoed her views. A spokesman for the national transportation system, which oversees all trains, trams and buses, called the law "unworkable."
"Police have said it's not their priority," he told newspaper Algemene Dagblad. "This means that they won't show up to the tram or train or bus for more than a half hour after a complaint. That can't work for us – the ride has to continue on its route."
Hospitals have also said they do not intend to enforce the law. The largest chain of hospitals has said that they will continue to demand that face coverings be removed for regular identification purposes at the entry, and are prepared to remove people who refuse – but the law for this is already in place. Once the women have been identified, they say, security personnel will not ask them to remove the coverings, and they will not be calling the police. As one hospital spokesperson noted, the concern in medical facilities is the care of people in need. "We fear that women who are forced to remove their veils won't even come," he said.
Even so, Muslims are already fighting back, including pro-Islam party NIDA, which has promised to pay any fines imposed. For now, the party has created a dedicated account for the fines; if needed, reports Linda magazine, it is prepared to crowdfund for the cause.
By contrast, the Dutch online forum for ISIS fans (there is one), Ahl as-Soennah, has advised its 6,000 followers not to accept NIDA's money, noting that it is part of a democratic government and therefore does not follow Allah's law. Instead, reports the Telegraaf, they've urged Muslim women to accept aid from Centrum Ar-Rahmah, an Islamic center in Veenendaal. Meantime, an organization that supports women converts has begun handing out free niqabs to anyone who is prepared to begin wearing one in defiance of the new law.
But others are taking a more aggressive tack. While they declare that the full veil is the obligation of Muslim women, some insist that it is equally the obligation of men to ensure that they wear it. Therefore, they argue, the law is an affront to all Muslims. "A man has the right and obligation to require his wife and children wear the niqab, because he is the leader, responsible for his family. If he fails this, he is a man without honor," claims Afghan-Dutch Abu Omar, who, the Telegraaf says, oversees the jihadist Al Risalah Facebook page.
Dutch security agencies are now on alert, concerned about potential violence once the law takes effect – whether it's enforced or not. With extremists declaring the ban "an act of war," they have good reason to be concerned. But concern is no good reason to surrender.
Abigail R. Esman, the author, most recently, of Radical State: How Jihad Is Winning Over Democracy in the West (Praeger, 2010), is a freelance writer based in New York and the Netherlands Her next book, on domestic abuse and terrorism, will be published by Potomac Books. Follow her at @radicalstates.