AMSTERDAM The Dutch government said on Friday it will ban face-covering veils worn by some Muslim women because these flout the Dutch way of life and culture.
Prime Minister Mark Rutte also announced tougher rules for immigrants and asylum-seekers wanting Dutch nationality who, in future, must show they have earned income and have not received financial assistance or benefits for at least three years.
The country's reputation as relatively easy on immigration has changed over the past decade, reflecting voter concerns over the large number of Muslim immigrants.
"The government believes the wearing of clothing that completely or almost entirely covers the face is fundamentally at odds with public life, where people are recognized by their faces," the government said in a statement on Friday.
"Face-covering clothing prevents this and goes against the principles of equality between men and women, especially women."
The new measures reflect the influence wielded by populist politician Geert Wilders, whose anti-Islam, anti-immigration Freedom Party is the third-largest in parliament.
Wilders has a pact with the minority coalition government to provide crucial support in parliament in exchange for tougher policies on Islam and immigration from non-Western countries.
The Liberal-Christian Democrat coalition government has already faced tough opposition from Wilders' Freedom Party over its support for euro zone bailouts, and needs to keep it on side in order to push ahead with crucial budget cuts.
The government said it did not consider the ban on face-covering veils a restriction of religious freedom, but that even if it was, it was "necessary and justified in the interest of protecting the character and way of life in the Netherlands."
The proposals will first be presented to the council of state, the administrative court, and then to parliament.
No time frame was given, but Wilders has said he hopes to introduce the ban on face-covering veils this year or next.
Arabic-style niqabs which leave the eyes uncovered and Afghan-style burqas that cover the face with a cloth grid are far less commonly seen on the streets of the Netherlands than Muslim headscarves which leave the face exposed.
France imposed a ban on burqas last year and on Friday banned street prayers.
(Reporting by Sara Webb and Djaja Ottenhof; Editing by Louise Ireland)