Dutch lawmakers on Wednesday debated a limited ban on face-covering headwear worn by some Muslim women that would outlaw the veils in places such as schools, hospitals and on public transportation.

Only a few hundred Muslim women in the Netherlands wear concealing niqabs or full-face burqas, but successive governments have still sought to ban the garments, following the example of other European countries such as France and Belgium.

Interior Minister Ronald Plasterk said the Dutch proposal did not go as far as the complete bans in those countries. He called the legislation "religion-neutral," but conceded that the debate about people wearing burqas on Dutch streets had played a major role in the proposal.

Plasterk said that in a free country like the Netherlands people should be allowed to appear in public with their faces covered, if they want to, but that in government buildings and in health and education settings such as hospitals and schools, people need to be able to look each other in the face.

It was not immediately clear when lawmakers would vote on the issue. If the legislation passes Parliament's lower house as expected, it must also be approved by the Senate before becoming law.

A small group of people wearing full-face veils watched the debate from the public gallery.

Independent lawmaker Jacques Monasch, called the burqa "a symbol of oppression of women" and objected to the presence of the veiled spectators in the gallery.

One opponent of the legislation, Fatma Koser Kaya of the centrist D66 party, said the law was unnecessary because many institutions in the Netherlands already have independent authority to stop women from wearing burqas and niqabs in certain situations.

"What are we banning today?" she asked. "This is symbolic lawmaking ... because in practice it already happens."