Police in the Netherlands are discriminating against a Muslim female officer by not allowing her to wear a headscarf with a uniform since her contact with the public is limited, the country’s Commission for Human Rights has ruled.
According to Dutch law, police officers are banned from wearing visible religious symbols while on duty on the grounds that they need to appear “neutral”.
Sarah Izat, the Rotterdam-based administrative officer who brought the case to the council, lodged a complaint in May, saying the ban was discriminatory against her and hindered her from progressing in her career.
While Izat’s non-Muslim colleagues were allowed to be dressed in uniforms, the 26-year-old officer could only be in plain clothes if she wanted to wear her headscarf.
On Monday, the Commission ruled that, in Izat’s case, the headscarf ban could not be justified, mainly because she was doing a desk job that required her taking statements over the phone or sometimes via a video projection system.
“When she is on the phone, civilians can’t see her. Prohibiting her [from wearing the scarf] therefore does not add to the intention of being neutral”, the council said, adding that the police had made a “forbidden distinction on the basis of religion”.
In its ruling, the Commission also said that in those cases where people saw Izat’s face, via the video projection system, the scarf had no an influence on her job since she only took the statements and was not authorised to make any decision about how the police would further proceed.
The human rights council also rejected as unfounded a claim by the national police that the headscarf could pose a danger to Izat’s personal safety.
Instated in 2012, the Dutch Commission for Human Rights is an independent supervisory body tasked with the advancement, protection and safeguarding of human rights in the Netherlands.
As with all of its decisions, Monday’s ruling is non-binding. This means police can decide whether or not to abide by it.
The ruling also only applies to this case and does not address the wider question of headscarves or other religious symbols worn by police officers.
“We would have liked it if the Commission had made its decision a bit broader, but we are satisfied with this ruling”, Betul Ozates, Izat’s lawyer, told Al Jazeera.
“I hope this motivates the police to look and change its code of conduct which now prohibits people from wearing a headscarf, especially because my client has been doing her job for months while wearing her scarf. She just wasn’t allowed to do it wearing her uniform”, she added.
“She was more than capable in doing her job while wearing the scarf, so we feel she should be able to wear the uniform when she does her job as well just like her colleagues.”
On Twitter, Izat responded to the decision by saying, “We won! The Commission has confirmed I have the right to wear a uniform and a headscarf. This means everything and this victory belongs to us all”!
Talking to Al Jazeera, a police spokeswoman referred to its official press release, saying the police would look at the decision.
“The police want to be a neutral organisation, that’s why we take the Commission’s decision seriously. Neutrality will remain a key facet of police work,” the press release read.
Political world reacts
Later on Monday, several politicians condemned the Commission’s ruling, citing police neutrality and the separation of church and state.
Arno Rutte, a member of parliament for VVD, the biggest party in the Dutch coalition government, wrote: “The police uniform shows the neutral character of the State.”
He added that police officers would not be allowed to show their political affiliation or wear football shawls either.
Far-right politician Geert Wilders said the decision was “insane” and called for a total ban of the headscarf.
The question whether police officers should be allowed or not to wear any religious symbols at work has for months been a topic of discussion in the Netherlands.
The police have always said they strive to be neutral and not show any possible partiality.
Earlier this year, however, the head of police in the Dutch capital, Amsterdam, said he has been contemplating allowing headscarves to improve diversity in the force, citing the example of other countries with officers from more diverse backgrounds.
The remarks by Pieter-Jaap Aalbersberg led to most political parties condemning the idea, saying police should be neutral and not show any religious expression.
A public survey conducted soon after showed a majority of Dutch was also in agreement with those politicians.
For Izat and her lawyer, the fight might continue if the police decide that she still cannot wear her headscarf, despite the Commission’s ruling.
“We’ll wait what the police will do, and then we’ll see what happens after,” said Ozates.