FILE - A protestor attends a demonstration against the ban on Muslim women wearing the burqa in public in The Hague, Netherlands.
FILE - A protestor attends a demonstration against the ban on Muslim women wearing the burqa in public in The Hague, Netherlands.

LONDON - Dutch rights activists and Muslim groups fear nativist vigilantes will try to enforce a controversial headwear ban that took effect last week.

Dutch police, transport companies and municipal authorities have expressed a reluctance to enforce the ban on face-covering clothing. The new law criminalizes Muslim women for wearing either the all-covering burqa or the niqab, which covers everything but the eyes, in many public places.

Public transport companies have instructed their staffers to ignore the ban, and police chiefs say enforcing the controversial ban is not a high priority.

“That means the law is unworkable,” Pedro Peters, a transport spokesman, told local media, as “the police told us they will not attend incidents at a train, bus or metro within half an hour. So, that means we would be stuck, but the service can’t be interrupted.”

He added: “We never asked for this law, and the practice [of wearing niqabs] has never caused problems. Transport must always go on. We are not going to stop trams and metros because someone is wearing a burqa or motorbike helmet.”

Major Dutch hospitals have also said they have no intention of upholding the ban, saying they don’t want to discourage people from seeking treatment.

“It is not the job of the hospital, but of the police and justice ministry,” the country’s hospital association said in a statement.

Authorities in the cities of Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Utrecht have all said the ban for them isn’t a high priority.

“There are so many laws and not enough police officers, said Rotterdam's mayor, Ahmed Aboutaleb. "Rotterdam has bigger problems — murder, drugs, the undermining of society.”

Pushed by populists

The attitude of municipal authorities has fueled the anger of populists and nativists who pushed for the face-covering prohibition, a ban that’s been debated for almost a decade.

Nourdin el-Ouali, leader of the Nida Party, an Islamist faction based in Rotterdam, said he worries that vigilantes may take the law into their own hands when they spot someone wearing a niqab or burqa.

“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. He calls the measure a “serious violation” of freedom of religion and freedom of movement.

Rights activists and Muslim leaders reacted angrily to an editorial in the conservative newspaper Algemeen Dagblad last Thursday explaining what to do if someone was seen wearing prohibited clothing, including tips on how to make a citizen’s arrest. The editorial noted, “Force can only be used to stop someone running away and could, for example, involve holding someone to the ground.”

FILE - Dutch anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders answers questions during an interview with Reuters in the Hague, Netherlands.

Not anti-Muslim?

The Dutch ban was first proposed by nationalist politician Geert Wilders and was backed in 2016 by the centrist government of Mark Rutte as he competed for the conservative vote.

Some supporters of the ban say it isn’t anti-Muslim, arguing the measure requires people of any background to remove all face coverings, including ski-masks, helmets and balaclavas when entering public buildings or traveling on public transport. The Dutch government says the “partial ban doesn’t target any religion and that people are free to dress how they want.”

But Wilders made little secret when campaigning for the measure, which was finally passed last June, that his main motivation was to halt Islamization and encourage assimilation. He’s now arguing for an expansion to the law to include a ban on wearing a hijab, or headscarf.

Critics of the measure say it is a piece of legislation in search of a problem, as only a few hundred Dutch women are estimated to wear a burqa or niqab. The population of the Netherlands is 17 million.

The debate surrounding face-covering veils has surfaced in many European cities. France banned face-covering veils in public buildings nearly a decade ago, becoming the first European country to do so. Other countries have followed suit, including Spain, Italy and Austria, which earlier this year passed an additional law prohibiting girls from wearing headscarves in primary schools.