Belgium decides to ban the Burqa
- BRUSSELS: Belgium became Europe's first country to vote for a ban on the full Islamic veil or burqa, sparking dismay among Muslims and warnings of a dangerous precedent with France set to follow suit.
On Thursday night, barring two abstentions, all 136 legislators of the lower house of the Belgian federal parliament supported a nationwide ban on clothes or veils that do not allow the wearer to be fully identified. But the bill, which makes wearing of the burqa a criminal offence punishable with a fine of $20-34 and/or a jail sentence of up to seven days, will not come into force for weeks and may have to be re-examined if early elections are called as Belgium battles a political crisis.
"We're the first country to spring the locks that have made a good number of women slaves, and we hope to be followed by France, Switzerland, Italy, and the Netherlands; countries that think," said liberal lawmaker Denis Ducarme. The ban will be imposed in streets, public gardens and sports grounds or buildings "meant for public use or to provide services" to the public, according to the text of the bill.
All governing parties and the opposition agreed on the move - most for security reasons linked to the fact that people cannot be recognized while wearing the clothing. They added that the veil was a "walking prison" for women. The bill's chief promoter, Daniel Bacquelaine, said local mayors could suspend the ban during festivities such as Carnival when people traditionally wear costumes, including masks.
The vice-president of the Muslim Executive of Belgium, Isabelle Praile, warned the vote could set a dangerous precedent and pave the way for a crackdown on other symbols of religious expression such as Sikh turbans.
Human rights group Amnesty International too condemned the vote, saying it violated rights to freedom of expression and religion and set a dangerous precedent. The group urged Belgium's Senate to seek the view of its Council of State on the legality of the measure.
In Le Soir newspaper, Michael Privot, an Islamic scholar, said Belgium "now joins Iran and Saudi Arabia in that exclusive but unenviable rare club of countries to impose a dress code in the public domain". He said the three cite "the protection of dignity, or even the freedom, of women to justify the unjustifiable: the restriction of individual freedoms of some of our citizens".
Caroline Sagesser, religious expert at the Universite Libre of Brussels, said existing police regulations forbidding people from wearing masks on the street were quite sufficient to have the same effect. "It's a bit like taking a hammer to kill a fly. Especially since in Belgium there are very, very few women wearing a full veil on public roads. It is a non-problem," she said.
Politicians across Europe have sought to ban veils or headscarves to assuage public concern about a perceived growth of Islamic militancy. France, which has the largest Muslim population in Europe, is also looking towards a ban on wearing veils in public, with the government set to examine a draft bill in May. It could also become law within a few months.