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Belgium Moves to Ban Burqas in Public

Woman wearing a niqab in Brussels. Photo by Julien Warnand/AFP/Getty Images

Belgium is heading toward becoming the first European country to ban women from wearing burqas in public after its Parliament voted Thursday to ban the Muslim full-face veil.

Lawmakers contend that the ban would improve security and allow police to identify people, and eliminate a form of repression in Belgium. The hijab, which covers a women’s hair, would still be allowed.

The sponsors of the measure genuinely feel they are doing this to help women, Teri Schultz, GlobalPost’s EU correspondent based in Brussels, told us by telephone. “They feel that this is a sign of oppression, and that if these women are not allowed to wear the burqa they won’t have to wear it and they can walk around freely.”

But the Muslim population, which is growing in Western Europe, views it as an anti-Islamic move that could create its own form of repression by punishing women for wearing the garment outside, she said. Under the law, women who wear burqas could be fined 15 to 25 euros (about $20 to $33) and jailed for up to seven days.

Some Muslim activists, even those who are against the burqa themselves, say “any liberty [women] would have had to meet other people to see other ways of life while wearing their burqa or their niqab is now being taken away from them,” said Schultz.

Opponents also point out that there already is a law requiring anyone who has his or her face covered by motorcycle helmets, carnival masks, veils, etc., to show their face when requested by law enforcement authorities, so they feel other anti-Islamic motivations are at play, she added.

Schultz also noted out that the vote itself — 136-0 with two abstentions — represented a rare moment of agreement in the fractious Parliament. Belgium’s coalition government collapsed last week due to disagreements between the Dutch-speaking north and the French-speaking south on issues such as voting rights. The Senate still needs to take up the measure, and some have questioned the phrasing of the law, which might delay action on the ban.

Despite the opposition among the larger Muslim community, there was very little public debate about the measure or large-scale demonstrations in Belgium, Schultz said. In Belgium, Muslims comprise about 3 percent of the population, compared to France’s 7.5 percent.

View Muslim population tallies around the world, in 2009 figures, in this interactive map by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

France, which has the largest Muslim population in Western Europe, is considering a similar ban to Belgium’s. President Nicolas Sarkozy is reportedly planning to introduce the measure on May 19, and the National Assembly is expected to debate it in July.

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