BRUSSELS: Belgian lawmakers voted overwhelmingly on Thursday to ban the wearing of the burqa in public, paving the way for the first clampdown of its kind in Europe.
But the move was condemned by Muslim leaders, a Catholic bishop and human rights group Amnesty International. In the lower house of federal parliament, 136 deputies voted for a nationwide ban on clothes or veils that do not allow the wearer to be fully identified, including the full-face niqab and burqa. There were two abstentions. No one voted against. 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. Exceptions could be allowed for certain festivities like carnivals if municipal authorities decide to grant them.
People who ignore the new law could face a fine of 15-25 euros (20-34 dollars) and/or a jail sentence of up to seven days. All governing parties and the opposition agreed on the move -- most on the basis that people cannot be recognised while wearing the clothing. The upper house of parliament has two weeks to raise any objections to the decision.
"It's not about introducing any form of discrimination," Daniel Bacquelaine, head of the liberal MR party in the house told the lawmakers, but for cases when such clothing was "aimed at stopping people from being identified." Ahead of the vote, the vice-president of the Muslim Executive of Belgium, Isabelle Praile, warned that it could set a dangerous precedent.
"Today it's the full-face veil, tomorrow the veil, the day after it will be Sikh turbans and then perhaps it will be mini-skirts," she said. "The wearing of a full-face veil is part of the individual freedoms" protected by Belgian, European and international rights laws, she said. Amnesty International also condemned the move in a statement issued Thursday. "A complete ban on the covering of the face would violate the rights to freedom of expression and religion of those women who wear the burqa or the niqab," said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty's expert on discrimination in Europe.
"The Belgian move to ban full face veils, the first in Europe, sets a dangerous precedent," he warned. Amnesty called on the upper house to review the legislation, adding it believed the move was in breach of Belgium's obligations under international human rights law.
There was no "demonstrable link between the wearing of full face veils in Belgium and genuine threats to public safety," Dalhuisen argued. The Catholic bishop -- Belgium is traditionally Catholic -- in the southern town of Tournai, Guy Harpigny, said: "Does the state really have the right to regulate the symbols of personal beliefs?" The ban comes amid controversy in the kingdom over the wearing of Muslim religious symbols in public places.
In June last year, a Belgian lawmaker of Turkish origin was sworn in at the Brussels regional parliament wearing a headscarf in a first for the country. At the time, opponents of the veil distributed flyers at the entry to the assembly building, but they did not disturb proceedings as 26-year-old Mahinur Ozdemir was triumphantly sworn in to applause and camera flashes.
Controversy has also raged elsewhere in Europe over the wearing of Muslim veils and other religious garments in state or public institutions. President Nicolas Sarkozy has declared that the burqa is not welcome in France, calling it an affront to French values that denigrates women. France's National Assembly will begin debate in early July on a bill banning Muslim women from wearing the full Islamic veil.
A final draft of the legislation outlawing the face-covering veil from all public spaces as well as state institutions is set to be approved by the cabinet on May 19. Staunchly secular France passed a law in 2004 banning the wearing of headscarves or any other "conspicuous" religious symbols in state schools. Belgian lawmakers were defiant in the face of claims they could face reprisals.
"The fact of being scared, should that be a reason not to defend our values?" Denis Ducarme from the MR movement told fellow lawmakers Thursday.