The Netherlands has taken a major step toward introducing a partial ban on wearing face-covering garments in some public places. The move is seen as targeting the full-face Islamic veils worn by some Muslim women.
The proposed legislation approved by the Dutch cabinet Friday would make it illegal to conceal one's face in certain situations and locations.
"Face-covering clothing will in future not be accepted in education and health care institutions, government buildings and on public transport," said a statement released by the government after the cabinet threw its support behind Interior Minister Ronald Plasterk's bill.
The statement added that the bill was meant strike "a balance between people's freedom to wear the clothes they want and the importance of mutual and recognizable communication."
Speaking to reporters shortly afterward, Prime Minister Mark Rutte insisted that the bill, which bans the covering of the face "in specific situations where it is essential for people to be seen" or for security reasons, did not target Muslims.
"The bill does not have any religious background," the prime minister said, noting that Muslim women would still be free to wear the burqa on the street.
Under the proposal, people wearing face-covering garments such as the Muslim veil in places where it is banned would be subject to a fine of 405 euros ($450).
The statement said that previous proposed legislation, stemming from Rutte's last administration, which was supported by anti-Islam populist politician Geert Wilders, would be withdrawn as the current government "sees no reason for a general ban that would apply to all public places."
The bill is now to be examined by a panel of legal advisors, which was highly critical of the previous proposed legislation, arguing that it would amount to a breach of religious freedom provisions of the Dutch constitution. To become law, the proposal would have to be passed by both the lower and upper chambers of the Dutch parliament.
A small number of women in the Netherlands wear the burqa, with estimates putting this figure at between 150 and 500.
France introduced similar, stronger legislation in 2010, banning the wearing of any garment that totally obscures a person's face in public places, with some exceptions. Then-President Nicolas Sarkozy argued that the rule was important on both security and integration grounds.
pfd/msh (AFP, AP, dpa)