A Dutch policewoman fights for her right to wear a headscarf
- 08 March 2018
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Dutch policewoman Sarah Izat.
Sarah Izat’s story is a familiar one: the 26-year-old Dutch Muslim took her employers to court when they insisted that she remove her headscarf at work. What makes this case stand out is her employer, the Rotterdam police force.
In November 2017, the Commission for Equal Treatment ruled in her favour, but the ruling was not binding, and the police department stuck to its guns: if Sarah wanted to wear their uniform, the hijab had to come off. Its decision is based on the Dutch police’s “lifestyle-neutral” code, whereby personnel in uniform are not allowed to wear or show any religious, political or other affiliation while interacting with citizens.
But Sarah says that she has colleagues who wear crosses and one who sports a large tattoo, and they have not been held to this rule. By contrast, when she appeared on the first day of a training programme in full uniform and sporting her hijab, she was immediately taken aside by her superiors and told to remove it. It was made clear to her that she would have to choose between the uniform and her headscarf, which considers “part of [her] identity”.
Sarah works part-time at the service desk in the police department, taking complaints from citizens and filing reports. “They made an exception for me; I am the only woman in the Netherlands who is allowed to wear a headscarf while interacting with citizens,” she told My Salaam.
The interaction is via video, and not in person, but people calling in can see her as well as her headscarf. However, this exception was not extended to wearing the headscarf with the police uniform. “The police were also lost,” said Sarah. “They didn’t know how to solve the dilemma.
Sarah had two reasons for her move to challenge the police code before the Commission for Equal Treatment. “Rotterdam is a multicultural city. Citizens will find it easier to connect with policepersons who look like them. So I don’t think my headscarf is an obstacle. It is the opposite.”
But she acknowledges that people are also apprehensive about Islam. “Society is ready for tattoos but not a policewoman wearing a headscarf. It is a very political decision not to allow the headscarf to be worn with the uniform.”
Dutch policewoman Sarah Izat
The second reason that she challenged the police was to show society that Muslim women have a voice and are empowered enough to demand their rights. “I decided to wear my headscarf. Nobody made me do it. And I know that there are so many young girls and women who would like to join the police force. I had so many of them contact me via Twitter, Facebook, text and email. I did my best to change this neutrality code, to take a step towards accepting diversity.”
But Sarah has had little reason to remain hopeful. “Nothing has changed. I know that the decision is not with my superiors or my department. It lies with the responsible minister and with the chief of police. But I have taken a first step towards the police accepting more diversity.”
The lawyer who represented Sarah, Betul Ozates, represented a law student from Erasmus University, Rotterdam, in a similar case in 2016. The student had applied for a position as External Registrar at the District Court of Rotterdam. She was told that, in the interest of maintaining a neutral appearance, she would have to take off her headscarf. They won the case, but again, the decision was not binding. The law student was denied the job.
In March 2017, as Betul was preparing to take the matter to the National Court, supported by a Dutch Women’s Rights organisation, the European Court of Justice made a landmark judgment that would have a huge influence on such cases. Ruling on a case in which a Belgian woman and French woman were fired for wearing their headscarves on the job, it declared that employers may prohibit their employees from wearing headscarves or other outward expressions of religion, politics and other allegiances.
Betul said, “It is very hard to accept this situation. The European court ruling set a bad precedent, as no national court is going to challenge it due to the nationalistic atmosphere in Europe today. I am afraid we can’t change this discrimination against Muslim women in court. Society has to change. We are asking to be judged on merit and not on our outward appearance.”
Sarah says that one positive outcome of her case is that it seems to have lifted the taboo of talking about the issue, “because we need to talk about the things that we are afraid of in order to convince and understand each other.”
She believes that it is a good thing that people now realise that there are Muslim women in the police force. “I am the police. It is not just white men with blue eyes. I am serving this country and its people. I love this country.”
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