Lawmakers in Belgium have voted overwhelmingly in support of a ban on wearing the Islamic full-face veil in public, setting the stage for the first clampdown of its kind in Europe.
Members of Belgium’s lower house of parliament voted 136 in favor of the ban and none against, with two abstentions.
The ban, which must be approved by Belgium’s senate before taking effect, prohibits the public wearing of face-coverings that render a person “no longer identifiable" -- including both the niqab, which leaves a narrow slit for eyes, and the burqa, which covers the entire face.
The legislation would be the first in Europe to make wearing the veil a criminal offense.
Doing so would be punishable by fines of 15-25 euros ($20-$33) and imprisonment for up to seven days.
The legislation also allows local authorities to fine offenders up to 250 euros if they are not punished by the criminal justice system.
Daniel Bacquelaine, head of Belgium’s liberal MR party and chief promoter of the ban, said it is not meant to be discriminatory.
“The burqa is not a religious sign, it's a political sign first and foremost,” he added.
His party has argued for the ban as a security measure and on the grounds that the veil is a “walking prison” for women.
That’s an argument rejected by Selma, a 22-year-old Muslim convert who says she decided to wear the niqab a month ago.
"It’s not at all an attack on our identity, our dignity, or anything at all,” she says. “For most of the women I know who wear the niqab today, it is their own choice. They are the ones who want to wear it. Now if people don't want to understand that then we can't do anything more for them.”
Bacquelaine estimates that a few hundred women in Belgium wear face veils and says it is a rising trend.
But critics have questioned the need for the ban, since only 3 percent of Belgium’s population is Muslim -- and only a small fraction of that 3 percent wears the full-face veil.
One critic is Caroline Sagesser, of the Free University of Brussels’ Study of Religion and Secularism Department. “It’s a bit like taking a hammer to kill a fly,” she says.
But Sagesser says that with rising public anxieties about Islam, few politicians were willing to come out openly against such a ban.
"I think that really, and in the international context that we have known for 10 years, what is going on in Afghanistan and so on, I don't think anyone really favors that type of freedom, the freedom to wear the full veil in public,” she said.
A Strong Precedent?
Isabelle Praille, vice president of the Executive of Belgian Muslims, said the ban could encourage fear of Muslims, or even attacks.
"By taking these steps toward prohibition -- be it this one or another -- what you are doing is opening the door to knock-on effects in the public sphere,” said Praille. “In the end, the specter and fear of Muslims which is woven into day-to-day politics by some newspapers, well, this fear will eventually translate itself into different forms of discrimination or hostilities or even violence."
International human rights watchdog Amnesty International says the Belgian vote “sets a dangerous precedent” and violates the rights of freedom of expression and religion.
The group called on Belgium’s senate to review the legislation carefully before adopting it, arguing that it may amount to a breach of the country’s obligations under international human rights law.
The upper house has two weeks to raise any objections to the decision, but analysts are expecting the ban to be adopted.
Some senators, however, have questioned the phrasing of the law, which says no one can appear in public "with the face fully or partly covered.” The ban does make exceptions for police officers, firefighters, and motorcyclists wearing helmets, as well as for people taking part in festivities such as Carnival, where masks are generally worn.
Adoption of the ban could also be affected by Belgium’s political crisis, which saw the collapse of the government last week. That means parliament will have to be dissolved before early elections, expected in a matter of weeks.
The vote comes a week after the French government said it would present a bill to parliament next month that would outlaw the full-face veil in all public places.
written by Richard Solash, with agency reports