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Belgian Parliamentary Panel Approves Draft Law Banning Full Veil In Public

A young girl with a head scarf sits with a friend on a streetside bench in Brussels.
(RFE/RL) -- An influential committee of the Belgian parliament has approved a draft law that would ban Muslim women from wearing the full face veil in public places.

The Justice and Home Affairs Committee decided to send the draft to the full parliament for a vote expected sometime in April. It reportedly has the backing of all five parties in the ruling coalition.

If the measure is approved by parliament, it will be the first comprehensive law in Europe against the wearing of the face veil -- the niqab, which hides all the face but the eyes -- or burqa, a full-length garment that covers the entire body, including the face and eyes.

The Belgian draft would prevent the wearing of the full veil anywhere in public, in the street, in public parks, at sports grounds, and in public and state buildings.

The liberal Belgian party the Reformist Movement has been pushing to get the measure before parliament.

"A person cannot claim the right to see another person without being seen himself," party leader Daniel Bacquelaine told Belgian television channel RTL in Brussels. "I think there is also an aspect related to human dignity -- the women's imprisonment under a burqa is not acceptable in a civilized society."

Possible Jail Time

The move in the Belgian parliament follows controversial decisions last year by the school board in the Dutch-speaking region of Flanders to ban the wearing of Muslim head scarves in state-run schools.

A senior official of the Council of State, the country's supreme administrative court, warned the schools at the time that they were exceeding their authority by imposing a headscarf ban. Last week the same council suspended the ban while it considered a legal ruling.

Nevertheless, a number of local councils maintain partial bans on the wearing of veils which hide a person's identity.

A law against the full face veil would likely encounter opposition from within Belgium's large Muslim community.

"The law foresees a fine of 15 to 25 euros and a prison sentence of between one day and seven days -- it's up to the judge to decide whether to apply the fine or the jail term, the two need not be taken together," Reformist Movement lawmaker Denis Ducarme, coauthor of the bill, told RFE/RL regarding sanctions for breaking the veil ban, adding, "The judge can impose a prison term in the case of a second offense."

Ducarme said the wearing of the full veil has been increasing for years in urban areas in Belgium, and his party thinks that trend runs counter to the demands of a modern society, and to the demands of public security.

Mon Dieu!

Debate about the wearing of traditional Muslim garments in Europe has grown in recent years, particularly in France. Many Europeans link the all-covering garments to Islamic extremist fundamentalism.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has said that clothing which covers the face and prevents identification of the individual has no place in France's secular society.

But a January recommendation by a parliamentary panel to bar women from wearing the full veil in public institutions has received a caution from France's Council of State.

In a report issued on March 30, that French council said that introducing such a ban would threaten rights guaranteed under both the French Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights.

It said it could not see any clear way to enact such legislation without it being vulnerable to legal challenge.

The report expressed the opinion that basing a ban on public security concerns -- that is, being unable to identify the wearer -- does not appear a sufficient reason for a ban.

French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said a day before the Council of State report was made public that he intends to go as far as possible "on the path of a general ban on the full veil, while respecting the general principles of the law."

So far, no European country has adopted sweeping national legislation banning the full veil, although it has been studied in several countries including the Netherlands, Austria and Denmark.

written by Breffni O'Rourke and Antoine Blua in Prague based on RFE/RL and wire reports