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The Politicization of the Headscarf in the Netherlands



Over the past 50 years, the Netherlands has been transformed from a relatively homogeneous society to one characterized by ethnic and cultural diversity.   Today over 8% of the Netherlands’ 16 million people are of non-Dutch origin.  More than half of the non-Dutch are Muslims, mostly from Turkey and Morocco.  In many ways, the Netherlands’ evolution to a multicultural society has paralleled that of other European countries, including Germany, France, England, and Denmark.  Even the high percentage of Muslims among new immigrants is not unique to the Netherlands.  Yet with its long history of inclusive nationalism, religious pluralism, and deep-seated tolerance, the Netherlands has generally been more successful than its neighbors at accepting new immigrants and their accompanying cultural differences.  Where in other European nations conflicts over multiculturalism and even outright racism towards immigrants have long been prevalent, the Netherlands have been historically able to maintain a largely benign environment for incoming immigrants and their children.  

However, over recent years the Netherlands has found itself increasingly engaged in conflicts over multiculturalism that are similar to its European neighbors.  In particular, debates over the merits of multiculturalism and even outright attacks on Islam and Muslims have become widespread.  People have begun to question whether or not Islam is compatible with Dutch norms and values.  It is in this context that the debate over the headscarf, a simple cloth that many Muslim women wear, has erupted. (The headscarf is alternately known as the “veil” or simply “scarf”).  For some, use of the headscarf is considered symbolic of the oppression of Muslim women and the “ills and intolerance” of Islam.  For others, the right to wear it is seen as an issue of civil rights related to the maintenance of historical and cultural identity, transcending national boundaries.   This debate has entered the political arena as politicians and the media have joined with regular citizens in framing the discussions.        

Examination of the timing and content of debate over Muslim women’s use of the headscarf in the Netherlands offers insight into evolving Dutch attitudes towards Islam and multiculturalism. To that end, this paper gives an overview of the history and character of multiculturalism in the Netherlands.  In particular, the country’s strong character as a tolerant nation is considered.  The September 11th terrorist attacks, along with other factors that have fueled the headscarf debate, are reviewed.  Contemporary debate over the headscarf is presented, followed by emerging effects of politicization of this debate in Dutch society.  Finally, the voices of women who wear the scarves are presented, along with analysis and thoughts for the future.

Overview:  Multiculturalism in the Netherlands

The beginning of the Netherlands’ transformation into an “immigrant country” can be traced to the mid-1950s.  Labor shortages resulting from the demands of postwar reconstruction led the country to recruit guest workers.  The first wave of guest workers was primarily from Spain, Italy, and Yugoslavia.  This was followed by an influx of large numbers of guest workers from North Africa and Turkey.  At the time, it was thought that most of these guest workers would return to their home countries. Yet many, particularly the Turkish and North African guest workers, chose to stay.  Beginning in the late 1970’s, some were even able to bring their families from their home countries.  By January 1994, the number of residents from the former recruitment countries had increased to 450,000, of which Turks and Moroccans formed by far the largest groups.  

While many immigrants came to the Netherlands as guest workers, many others came as repatriates from Dutch colonies or former Dutch colonies.  Between 1946 and 1962 during the decolonization process over 300,000 migrants from Indonesia and New Guinea arrived.  The majority was of mixed Indonesian-Dutch descent and entitled to settle in the Netherlands on the basis of their Dutch citizenship. Suriname, another former Dutch colony, also figures prominently in Dutch immigration.  Until 1975 Suriname formed part of the Dutch Kingdom. Surinamese migration was therefore open and easy.  Migration from Suriname was highest during the few years leading up to independence in 1975, as well as in 1979, immediately before the expiration of the transitional agreement on the settlement of mutual subjects.  Dutch citizens of Surinamese origin now number over 300,000.  Finally, the Dutch Antilles, which is still a part of the Dutch Kingdom, has open immigration with the Netherlands.  Therefore many Antilleans move fluidly between the Netherlands and their home country.  Nevertheless, there are nearly 100,000 Antillean-Dutch residents in the Netherlands. 

The aggregate of these migration waves has yielded an increasingly multi-cultural society in the Netherlands, totaling 8% of the total Dutch population. And as noted, over half of these immigrants come from Muslim countries, with many bringing Islam and its visible cultural practices, including use of the headscarf, with them. 

The Tolerant Nation

Though the Netherlands has only recently become an ethnically diverse society, it has long been a culturally diverse society.  There is and always has been significant cultural variation in Dutch society, deriving from differences in religion, class, and regional and urban-rural variations.  Historically, religion has been the most dominant of these elements of diversity. In particular, Catholics and Protestants in Dutch society have built their own respective organizational networks spanning all domains of public life in a process known as “pillarization.”  Pillarization, along with the generally decentralized nature of Dutch society, has led to a relatively weak nationalism in the Netherlands.  This contrasts with other European countries, such as Germany and France, where the greater unity of language, culture and religion is a fundamental aspect of nationalism.  As such, the Netherlands version of nationalism has proven less rigid and more inclusive than that of other European nations.  

In addition to its more inclusive nationalism, the Netherlands has also been highly tolerant of variant behaviors and practices that other nations have restricted or banned.  In fact, there are ample reasons why the Netherlands is hailed by many as the world’s most tolerant nation.  It was the first country to accept marriage between same-sex couples, to regulate prostitution, to approve and control euthanasia, and to allow the over-the-counter sale of marijuana.  According to Professor Rosi Braidotti, Director of Gender Studies at the University of Utrecht, “Because of the Netherlands' mainly Protestant roots, the Dutch generally believe that if you leave a human being to himself he will be a good person.”    

These factors—a history of tolerance, inclusive nationalism, and cultural variation—combined to create a more benign and accepting environment for immigrants to the Netherlands than existed in many other European nations.  Though the period up until the late 1990’s did witness some debate over multiculturalism and Islam, it was rarely as heated or divisive as it was in neighboring countries.  In fact, beginning in the 1970’s, the Netherlands began to make proactive efforts to include and welcome new immigrants into Dutch society.  In the Minorities Bill of 1983 a multicultural and pluralistic society is envisaged in which immigrants have the “same rights and opportunities to practice and develop their own cultural and religious identity as do other groups in Dutch society.”  As part of this bill, the government set out to strengthen immigrant communities, stimulate their political participation and facilitates their religious activities.  

In fact, if one chose in the early 1980’s or ’90’s to predict where a multicultural society might best succeed, the Netherlands was a good choice.  When compared to other European nations it experienced little overt conflict over multicultural issues. And although certainly not a perfectly integrated, non-racist Utopia, Dutch citizens pretty much left each other alone, which in general allowed for what appeared to be sustainable diversity. In this environment the Muslim woman and her headscarf were generally not harrassed at a societal level; the issue was simply not even on the table.   

The Shift in Political Discourse: September 11th and Other Factors

So what changed?  What is it that pushed this tolerant nation into a fierce and at times violent debate about multiculturalism and particularly about Islam?  There were early warning signs in the mid and late 1990’s.  National debates on minority policy, immigration, and illegal migrants began to garner greater attention.  An increasingly unfriendly climate towards asylum seekers and foreigners across Europe gave strength to anti-immigrant parties in the Netherlands.  In national parliamentary elections in May 1994, such parties won 3 of 150 seats—still a relatively small percentage in the European context, but three times more than before in the Netherlands.  Though these parties did not present any major threat, they did offer signs that impatience and frustration with multiculturalism were on the rise.  For example, in its 1999 and 2000 annual reports, the National Bureau Against Racial Discrimination drew attention to the “frustrations as to tolerance and the multicultural society” and “the eagerness with which the public and the media complain about aspects of the multicultural society.” 

Though there was clearly some dissatisfaction and even anger boiling underneath the surface of Dutch society throughout the 1990’s, the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, brought the “problem of Islam” in the Netherlands to the forefront.  According to Halim El Madkouri, the Director of the Programme for Religion and Identity at FORUM, the Institute for Multicultural Development, “It was the terrorist attacks of September 11th that opened the door in the Netherlands for both the attack on Islam and [the attack on] the headscarf.”  All of a sudden, this largely tolerant society began to witness a rising tide of racism and discrimination against Muslims, as well as the emergence of a public debate over the merits of a multicultural society.  Prominent politicians and scholars across the political spectrum attacked the concept of a multicultural society and argued for dramatic changes in the country’s policies towards immigrants and refugees.  Much of this debate was directed at Islam and the effect that the presence of Islam was having on Dutch society.  As Rod Dreher from the National Review puts it, “If not for the Islamist terrorist attacks, the fear and loathing many Dutch people have concerning the presence of Muslims in their country would not have been aired in Holland’s ultra-politically correct public square.”  

The Dutch right wing took full advantage of this political climate and escalated attacks on Islam and multiculturalism.  At the head of this right wing assault was the Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn.  Fortuyn, a charismatic and flamboyant former sociology professor, came to prominence largely by persuading voters that the secular West was in the midst of a clash of civilizations with intolerant Islam.  Fortuyn slammed Islam in public and in his book Against the Islamization of Our Culture.  Among other things, Fortuyn called for the end of Muslim immigration and the repeal of the first article of the Netherlands’ constitution, which forbids discrimination.  

Fortuyn’s rhetoric about the “backwardness” of Islam and the superiority of Western culture was not new, but it took a distinct form within the Dutch context of “uber-tolerance.”  As a gay man, Fortuyn could not help but be concerned (and even offended by) the fact that traditional Muslim culture does not accept homosexuality. Thus Fortuyn asked, “How can we tolerate Muslims, when they don’t accept our liberal values of tolerating everybody?”  Yet, as Professor Braidotti of the University of Utrecht points out, “There was a fundamental paradox in Fortuyn’s rhetoric that many Dutch did not seem to catch: He was using Dutch tolerance as a justification to be intolerant against Muslims.”  (It might be noted here that much of traditional Christianity has similar institutional intolerance with regard to homosexuality, but Fortuyn did not engage that debate.)  Despite such hypocrisy, Fortuyn and his new party Lijst Pim Fortuyn quickly rose to the forefront of Dutch politics.  Polls predicted that his party would gain up to 17% of seats in the 2002 parliamentary elections.  Just eight days before the election, an animal rights activist assassinated Fortuyn. Yet his anti-Islamic, anti-immigrant message lived on, and it put the debate over multiculturalism at center stage.  

It was in this context that the politicization of the headscarf in the Netherlands emerged. As Muslim journalist Samira Abbos points out, “The headscarf was simply not a political issue within wider Dutch society before September 11th.”  September 11th and Pim Fortuyn pushed the Dutch population towards questioning the entire multicultural evolution here.  As Professor Braidotti put it, “September 11th led to an incredible disruption of a consensus about multiculturalism and tolerance in Dutch society—a consensus that is still yet to be reconstructed.”  Out of the ashes of this old consensus arose a new political discourse in the Netherlands in which certain cultures and cultural practices could be questioned.  The “live and let live” attitude towards minorities was fundamentally altered.  A new discourse emerged:  If “they” do not accept “our” values, then “they” cannot be a part of “our” society.  

Contemporary Debate over the Headscarf

After September 11th, a new environment was generated in which Islam, immigration, and multiculturalism were fiercely debated.  Why did the headscarf, in particular, become central to this debate?  Full understanding comes from first examining the historical view of Muslim women.  For hundreds of years, the Muslim woman has been a subject of Western observation, analysis, and concern.  The Muslim woman was most often portrayed in story (and later in film) as highly sexualized.  At the same time, she was observed to be oppressed: a silent victim of Islamic culture.  Moreover, this representation and preoccupation with Muslim women existed within a dichotomy of “our” women and “their” women.  While our women had been “emancipated,” theirs had not—a dichotomy that was central to the perceived superiority of our culture over theirs.  

As such, the contemporary focus on the Muslim woman within Dutch society, though new in its intensity and ferocity, has deep roots within the history of the West.  In particular, different notions of women’s emancipation are central to relationships between cultures.  Moreover, our Western way is thought by some to be the only way.  As such, when the Dutch did move towards questioning the existence of cultural difference within their society, the mores and status of the women of the “Other” became a heated source of debate.  

Within this context, Muslim women who wear the headscarf in the Netherlands have been perceived by many to be doing so because they are forced to, as part of their identity in a culture that maintains an “inferior” notion of women’s emancipation.  The headscarf has thus come to symbolize the role of women within Islam and, with that, the differing notions of emancipation between Western and Muslim cultures.   This is one of the primary components of the current headscarf debate, emerging from longstanding historical attitudes and concerns.       

The politicization of the headscarf in Dutch society is also related to a belief in the separation of religion and the public sphere.  Though not as dominant as in France (a country that prides itself on its secularism), the separation of “church and state” is strongly valued in the Netherlands.  And the headscarf, perhaps as much as anything else, is a clear symbol of adherence to specific religious precepts.   Even those who might be unconcerned about the role of women within Islam may be simply afraid that the headscarf is encroaching on “Dutch secularism.”  This has become a matter of contention particularly within schools and courts, where there has been a call by politicians and others, highlighted by the media, to ban headscarves among employees of these state institutions. The assumption here is that a person with a visible and concrete symbol of religious devotion cannot be “neutral.”

Finally, for some, the headscarf’s politicization may simply reflect the age-old human reaction to the embodiment of cultural difference, without regard to religion or even terrorism. That is, those who fear multiculturalism may fear the effect that any difference will have on one’s society.  In his article “Discomfort of Strangers,” David Goodhart helps to illuminate such views.  Goodhart argues that “visible ethnic diversity” reminds people that there are “strangers” in their midst that may or may not share their same values and interests.  The headscarf is a concrete, visible and unavoidable expression of cultural difference within contemporary Dutch society.  One avenue to challenge the existence of increasing differences in Dutch society is to challenge use of that symbol.  The current environment may simply have made space for that reaction, without the cultural pressure for tolerance that largely contained it in earlier years.

It should be noted here that the overwhelming majority of the people in the Netherlands who are publicly debating the issue of headscarves—whether they be pundits, politicians, or ordinary citizens—are not Muslim women.  Sadly, those people who would be most affected by policy changes are the ones whose voices are, to date, the least audible.  Yet this is not to say that there are no Muslim women who are engaging with each other and the wider society about this issue.  According to Sawarti Saharso, a Professor at the University of Amsterdam, “Many Muslim women have spoken out against attacks on the headscarf and many have even joined organizations that help advocate for women who choose to wear the headscarf.”  Islam and Citizenship, My Veil and I, and Nissa are three such organizations. All three have created websites to publicize their cause.  According to Mr. Halim El Madkouri from FORUM, “It is a pity that the headscarf issue has become political, but it is good because it gives the opportunity for Muslims to make their own statements.”  

Though it is beyond the scope of this paper to fully analyze the “real” reasons that Muslim women wear the scarf, it is worth noting that the Muslim women and Muslim women’s organizations contacted during the course of this research all argued strongly that the headscarf is a voluntary and conscious religious choice.  Further, they did not acknowledge it as a burden, or a symbol of oppression.  Some Muslim women even suggested to us that they knew women that previously did not wear the headscarf who do so now, for political reasons.   Perhaps most importantly, the women and organizations interviewed unanimously view the politicization of the headscarf in the Netherlands as a major problem, one that has resulted in increased levels of discrimination against women who wear the headscarf.  

Emerging Effects of the Politicization of the Headscarf

The politicization of the headscarf in the Netherlands has not approached the levels it has in France, Germany, and Belgium.  In particular, the legal ban on headscarves in public schools in France has gained extensive international attention.  The Dutch have not yet enacted any similar formal, legislative changes to public policy regarding headscarves.  Even so, politicization of the headscarf has begun to impact the daily lives of Muslim women.  As the mass media, prominent politicians and citizens have begun to talk about the headscarf as a symbol of oppression or unwanted religious devotion, Muslim women with headscarves have clearly felt the effects.  Samia, a newly converted Dutch Muslim, describes how “society shuts the door on people who wear the headscarf” and sees them as “strange” and “dangerous.”  Samia’s views are shared by Samira Abbos, the Moroccan journalist, who says: “Headscarves prevent women from integrating due to society’s reaction to their headscarf and their resulting inability to find work, not because of the headscarf itself.”  In their 2002, report the National Bureau Against Racial Discrimination (LBR) confirms these views:  “Muslims who wear scarves are regularly discriminated against and face prohibition of scarves in the educational field and the labor market—a trend that has increased significantly over the past four years.”  Such examples of discrimination, according to the LBR, are contrary to Dutch legislation but are largely ignored by government agencies in charge of enforcing such legislation.  

In fact, perhaps one of the greatest indications of rising institutional

intolerance towards the headscarf in the Netherlands has been the increasingly lax attitude the government has taken towards employers and even state institutions that discriminate against women who wear the headscarf.  For example, a Muslim woman named Ayse Tabakatepe was denied a job as a court clerk after being told outright that the reason was because her headscarf “violated the neutrality of the court.”  No action was taken against the court for this incident.  Similarly, a court declared that a religious high school in Rotterdam has the right to deny admission to girls who wear the headscarf.  The Schools Inspectorate refused to tackle such rules, and the Ministry of Education, too, stated that such prohibitions in religious schools are acceptable.  In the aftermath of the French decision banning headscarves in public schools, there have been numerous calls within the halls of power for such a ban in the Netherlands.  Popular yet controversial right-of-center politician Hirsi Ali, a female immigrant from Somalia and a former Muslim, supports such a ban and intends to pursue one:  “I believe that children should be brought up in a neutral setting.  These symbols should not be allowed in the schools.”  Again, though there have not been major shifts in public policy in the Netherlands, shifts and changes in limited actions by the government suggest that the right to wear the headscarf may be even more restricted in the near future. 


Historically the Netherlands has been a nation of tolerance, respecting internal differences in religion and other attributes through a uniquely inclusive nationalism.  However, successive waves of immigration, dominated by Muslims, have challenged the Netherlands’ capacity for cultural absorption and integration.  Further, September 11th and the rise of prominent right wing politicians such as Pim Fortuyn exacerbated fear of religious and cultural differences in society, particularly with respect to Islam.  The use of the headscarf by Muslim women is a concrete and visible symbol of these differences, and it thus has emerged in Dutch society as a focus of the multiculturalism debate.

Although formal change in laws and public policy regarding the use of the headscarf in the Netherlands has been extremely limited to date, the issue is far from resolved. Court actions and increased discrimination by Muslim women point to the need for thoughtful policy-making in this area.  Perhaps most importantly, when examined in terms of timing and content, this seemingly narrow issue of the use of the headscarf yields recommendations for the greater policy landscape in the Netherlands.  

In particular, reviewing the history and dynamics of the headscarf debate suggests that the Dutch government revisit its tolerant roots, assessing where separation of religious symbols from public venues fits relative to its respect for individual and cultural differences and freedoms.  Moral leadership is needed both to challenge new forms of discrimination and to reconstruct a social consensus rooted firmly in Dutch tolerance.  Further, it is clear that facilitating increased visible participation of Muslim women in the policy debate is needed to arrive at a workable solution for the headscarf issue, as well as to create an inclusive model for addressing other multicultural concerns. 





Samira Abbos, Journalist.

Rosi Braidotti, University of Utrecht.

Halim El Madkouri, FORUM, Director of Project for Religion and Identity.

Samia, Dutch Muslim woman.

Gloria Wekker, University of Utrecht.

Vazira Zamindar,  Research Fellow with the International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World (ISIM)


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