BELGIUM has become the first country in Europe to ban the wearing of full-face veils, including the burqa and the niqab. The decision has outraged Muslim leaders and Amnesty International, and could be challenged in the courts under human-rights law.
Only about 30 women in Belgium are thought to wear the burqa; yet the vote in the country’s parliament, which is divided in every other area, won overwhelming support. It still needs to be approved by the Senate.
Although the law is worded in general terms to ban the covering of the face to prevent identification, MPs made it clear that their aim was to prevent Muslim women from wearing full-length veils. Anyone flouting the law and covering his or her face in a public place could be fined £22 and sentenced to up to seven days in prison.
A centre-right MP, Daniel Bacquelaine, said: “The notion of recognising people in the street is essential to maintain public order. It is also a question of human dignity. The full-face veil turns a woman into a walking prison.”
Belgian politicians argued during the vote that the law is necessary for public security, and also to protect women from being forced to wear the veils.
But Amnesty International has condemned the decision. John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s expert on discrimination in Europe, said: “A complete ban on the covering of the face would violate the rights to a freedom of expression and religion of those women who wear the burqa or the niqab as an expression of their identity or beliefs.
“The Belgian move to ban full-face veils — the first in Europe — sets a dangerous precedent. In the absence of any demonstrable link between the wearing of full-face veils in Belgium and genuine threats to public safety, there can be no justification for the restriction on the freedom of expression and religion that a complete ban on the wearing of face veils in public places would entail.”
The vice-president of the Muslim Executive of Belgium, Isabelle Praile, said that the ban was likely to be a slippery slope leading to further discrimination against religious dress. “Today is the full-length veil, tomorrow the veil [hijab], the day after it will be Sikh turbans, and then perhaps it will be mini-skirts,” she said.
Several other European countries are considering similar legislation. France could bring forward emergency legislation before the summer to ban the full-length veil. The fine in France for a first offence is likely to be £130, and husbands who forced their wives to wear them would be sent to prison.
Only 2000 out of an estimated two million adult Muslim women in France wear the full-length veil, but President Nicolas Sarkozy has described it as an affront to France’s republican values.
In Novaro in Italy this week, a woman was fined £430 for wearing the niqab in a post office, under local laws introduced by the town’s mayor. In Britain, the leader of UKIP, Lord Pearson, has said that the burqa should be banned as it represents fear and is a security risk.