THE HAGUE, Netherlands – About two dozen Muslim women protested Thursday outside the Dutch parliament against a proposed ban on the burqa, the head-to-toe Islamic robe.
Several protesters wore long robes and veils exposing only their eyes, known as a niqab.
"We live in a free country and the government cannot tell us what to do with our religion," protest organizer Ayse Bayrak told The Associated Press. "We don't live in a dictatorship. We don't live under the Taliban, which oppresses women."
Hardline Immigration Minister Rita Verdonk is drawing up legislation banning the burqa and other clothes that cover the face in public places.
However, it remains unclear whether lawmakers chosen in national elections last week and a new ruling coalition that is not expected to include Verdonk's Liberal Party will support the measure.
"We think that the whole procedure will be a job for the new Cabinet," said Justice Ministry spokesman Wiebe Alkema. "The new Cabinet will have to defend the bill (in Parliamentary debate). That is the situation we're in right now."
There are clear signs of a drift away from the Netherlands' traditional spirit of tolerance as the country wrestles with how to assimilate a growing immigrant population. About 6 percent of the Dutch population of 16 million is Muslim.
Newly elected Labor lawmaker Samira Abbos said banning the robes was the wrong thing to do.
"I think it's better to discourage than to ban," she said after meeting the protesters.
Thursday's protest on a city square outside Dutch parliament was peaceful, but featured occasional heated debates between onlookers and the Muslim women, who were easily outnumbered by dozens of reporters, photographers and television camera crews.
One elderly woman shouted "Take those stupid headscarves off!" as she cycled past without stopping.
Alia Benelhaj, a 20-year-old tourism student who was born in the Netherlands to Moroccan parents, said she has worn a head scarf for the last two years.
"You can walk around naked in this country and nobody says anything but if you are covered and experiencing your religion people ... try to ban it."
A woman who refused to give her name, told Benelhaj: "You have religious freedom. You're restricting your own freedom."
Benelhaj responded: "I see sisters (wearing burqas) who are intensely experiencing their religion. Dutch people's traditional beliefs are not so strong, so they have trouble empathizing."
One argument in the Netherlands against burqas is that the robe oppresses women.
But Sharifa Velland, a Dutch woman of Surinamese descent, said she needed strength to take the decision this summer to begin wearing a niqab.
"People ask me if I am weak, but I say that if I was weak I would not wear this. All the things people shout at me," she said.
Some people are supportive, but others "call me Osama bin Laden's mother," she added.
Organizer Bayrak accused Verdonk of using the issue to attract support before last week's election.
"This is something from Verdonk's box of tricks," she said. "Every time she wants to attract right wing voters she pulls the burqa out of the closet. She polarizes society like this."