Belgium to ban full Islamic veil

2010-04-22 10:34

Brussels - Belgium was set Thursday to slap a ban on wearing the Islamic burqa in public, the first such clampdown in Europe, just a day after the French government promised a similar law.

But a political crisis threatening the Belgian government and objections from France's constitutional watchdog mean the controversial measures might not make it into law.

Belgium's parliament was to vote on the law after its home affairs committee unanimously backed a nationwide ban on clothes or veils that do not allow the wearer to be fully identified, including the full-face niqab and burqa.

With both the governing parties and the opposition supporting the measure, Thursday's vote is expected to approve the draft law.

It would allow fines of $20-$34 and/or a jail sentence of up to seven days, for anyone ignoring it unless they had police permission to wear such garments.

But a party is threatening to pull out of the ruling coalition unless talks between the French and Dutch-language communities on power-sharing are not finalised in 24 hours.

And that means that the day's proceedings in parliament could yet be disrupted.

The French government said on Wednesday it would ban Muslim women from wearing a full-face veil in public, despite a warning from experts that such a law could be unconstitutional.

The spokesperson for President Nicolas Sarkozy's government said a bill would be presented to ministers in May and would seek to ban the niqab and the burqa from streets, shops and markets and not just from public buildings.

Legislating for the future

Most Muslim women, in France's immigrant communities and around the world, do not wear a full veil, but the niqab, which covers the face apart from the eyes, is widely worn on the Arabian peninsular and in the Gulf states.

The burqa, a shapeless full-body cloak that covers the face with a fabric grille, is worn in some areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

"We're legislating for the future," government spokesperson Luc Chatel told reporters after a cabinet meeting chaired by Sarkozy.

"Wearing a full veil is a sign of a community closing in on itself and of a rejection of our values," he added.

Last month however, the State Council - France's top administrative authority - warned Sarkozy against a full ban on the veil.

It suggested instead an order that women uncover their faces for security checks or meetings with officials.

In France, as in Belgium, there is strong parliamentary support for such a ban and the government is determined to press ahead.

Assault to women’s dignity

According to Chatel, Sarkozy told his cabinet the veil was an "assault on women's dignity".

Human Rights Watch warned against such legislation, in a statement issued late on Wednesday criticising the Belgian initiative.

"Bans like this lead to a lose-lose situation," said Judith Sunderland, senior Western Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch.

"They violate the rights of those who choose to wear the veil and do nothing to help those who are compelled to do so."

There was no evidence that wearing the full veil in public threatened public safety, public order, health, morals, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others, she added.

"At a time when Muslims in Europe feel more vulnerable than ever, the last thing needed is a ban like this, treating pious Muslim women like criminals won't help integrate them," Sunderland added.