Dutch populist lawmaker proposes burqa ban

Amsterdam, Holland - Dutch right-wing lawmaker Geert Wilders sent a bill to parliament on Thursday proposing a ban on wearing the Muslim burqa in public, but in its current shape the bill seemed likely to fall through.

A blanket ban on Islamic face coverings would be a first in Europe, though other countries have outlawed them in specific places. The Muslim community has estimated that only about 50 women in the Netherlands wear the head-to-toe burqa or the niqab, a face veil that conceals everything but the eyes.

"The bill proposes a maximum punishment of twelve days of imprisonment or a fine of 3,350 euros ($4,600)," Wilders' Freedom Party said in a statement.

Since the 2002 murder of anti-immigration maverick Pim Fortuyn, the Dutch have enforced some of Europe's toughest entry and integration laws. Social and religious tensions have grown in recent years, exacerbated by the murder of film director and Islam critic Theo van Gogh by a Dutch-Moroccan militant in 2004.

Muslim groups argue that a burqa ban would make the country's 1 million Muslims feel more victimised and alienated, regardless of whether they approve of burqas or not.

The coalition agreement of the new centrist government made up of Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende's Christian Democrats, the Labour party and Christian Union, says only that "face covering" clothing could be banned for reasons of public safety.

Dutch newspaper AD said such a ban would not single out burqas but also apply to carnival masks, motorcycle helmets and balaclavas -- qualifications that suggested it was unlikely the coalition parties would sign up for Wilders' proposal.

The Freedom Party said the burqa violated the Dutch constitution by implying the notion that women are inferior, and hindered integration. It said women wearing a burqa were also a public safety concern as identifying them was difficult.