The Netherlands has banned face-covering clothing, such as a burqa or niqab, in public buildings and on transport, as a contentious law on the garment worn by some Muslim women came into force.
Between 100 and 400 women are estimated to wear a burqa or niqab in the European country of 17 million people.
“From now on the wearing of clothing which covers the face is banned in educational facilities, public institutions and buildings, as well as hospitals and public transport,” the Dutch interior ministry said in a statement on Thursday.
The legislation – which was passed in June last year after more than a decade of political debate on the subject – also applies to other face coverings such as full-face helmets or balaclavas.
Security officials are now required to tell people with face-covering clothing to show their faces. If they refuse, they can be denied access to public buildings and fined 150 euros ($165).
However, it is unclear how strenuously the law can be enforced, with the public transport sector saying it would not stop to make a woman in a burqa get off as it would cause delays. Hospitals also said they would still treat people regardless of what they were wearing.
Both groups said enforcement of the law was up to the police.
Muslim and rights groups have voiced opposition to the law – formally called the “partial ban on face-covering clothing”.
The Nida party, an Islamic political party in Rotterdam, has said it will pay the fine for anybody caught breaking the ban and has opened an account where people can deposit money.
Nourdin el-Ouali, leader of the Nida party, said the prohibition has far-reaching consequences as it poses a “serious violation” for freedom of religion and freedom of movement.
“They will not be allowed to go on a metro, bus or tram when the law is observed. They can’t go to a hospital, they can’t go to the schoolyard, they can’t report to a police station,” he was quoted as saying by the Hart van Nederland news website.
“For the 17 million Dutch people, the question is – what kind of problem are we actually solving here?” el-Ouali asked, noting only a few hundred women wore the niqab or burqa in the Netherlands.
“It is a minimal part. It is often women who, when you speak to them, indicate that they [wear the niqab, burqa] from their religious belief.”
El-Ouali said he feared people would feel like they could take the law into their own hands when they saw someone wearing a niqab or burqa.
“That they’ll think, ‘I’m well within my rights when I put someone like that straight to the ground and call the police’,” he said.
On Wednesday, an editorial in the conservative newspaper Algemeen Dagblad sparked outrage after it published an explainer on what to do if someone was spotted wearing the prohibited clothing. The tips included making citizen arrests.
Dutch newspaper @ADnl published an explainer on what to do if someone spots a Burqa wearer from tomorrow when the ban begins. They suggest asking the person to leave, call the police or, alternative, exercise the right to a citizen's arrest. Wilders, of course, likes that option pic.twitter.com/m7dttADm8g
— Flavia Dzodan (@redlightvoices) July 31, 2019
There were no immediate reports on Thursday morning of anybody being fined under the new law.
Anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders, who proposed the face-covering veil ban in 2005, welcomed the introduction of the limited ban as an “historic day” and called for it to be expanded to include Islamic headscarves.
“I believe we should now try to take it to the next step,” Wilders told The Associated Press news agency in a telephone interview.
“The next step to make it sure that the headscarf could be banned in the Netherlands as well.”
The Dutch government has insisted that its partial ban doesn’t target any religion and that people are free to dress how they want.
The Dutch law does not ban the wearing of a burqa on the street, unlike France‘s ban which took effect in 2010. Belgium, Denmark and Austria have similar laws.