Legislators in Belgium voted almost unanimously to ban full face coverings for Muslim women on Thursday. While women will still be allowed to wear the hijab, which only covers their hair, in public places the veil ban will forbid them from wearing any veil or scarf that covers their face and stops them from being identified.
The move comes at a time when tensions between Muslims and non-Muslim Europeans are reaching unprecedented highs. A number of other European countries are considering similar bans and prohibitions against the Muslim community that are being widely decried by members of the Islamic community and human rights groups.
In the lower house, all politicians voted in favor of the ban except for two who abstained. Now the bill must pass before the senate for final approval where it is expected to pass without any serious challenges.
IN PICTURES: Behind the veil
Most Muslims in Belgium come from North Africa and some from Turkey, where the full facial covering is not common among Muslim women, says Allen Keiswetter, a Middle East expert and scholar at the Middle East Institute who has lived in Belgium.
As a result, he says, this new ban “will not affect a large number of people, but symbolically I think it could be an example of the increasing tension that has occurred between the Muslims and the non-Muslim Belgians.”
French President Nicolas Sarkozy has also said, “The burqa has no place in France.” Ignoring warnings about the questionable constitutionality of such a ban, Mr. Sarkozy and the French government have pledged to pass a ban by September, reports The Washington Post.
As in Belgium and most parts of Europe, it is uncommon to see women fully covered. Of the 5 million Muslims in France, according to the French Interior Ministry, fewer than 2,000 women wear a veil that covers their entire face.
$20 to $35 fine in Belgium
In Belgium, those who violate the new law could be fined $20 to $35 or imprisoned for up to seven days, reports Al Jazeera. If Muslim women receive police permission, they may be granted an exception to wear the full face covering during certain religious festivities. Those in support of the bill said it was not a move against Islam, but rather for public safety.
“It’s not about introducing any form of discrimination,” said Daniel Bacquelaine in an article by Al Jazeera. He explained that the law was designed to stop people from wearing certain types of clothing that was “aimed at stopping people from being identified.”
Amnesty International decries the law
Despite such claims, the international human rights advocacy organization Amnesty International has sharply criticized the new law, saying it would “violate the rights to freedom of expression and religion,” reports Press TV.
“The obligation to combat discrimination cannot be fulfilled by imposing a measure that is itself discriminatory,” John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s expert on discrimination in Europe said in an article by the Iranian news agency.
“I believe the way Islam has been defined in certain contexts has oppressed women, and I disagree with anyone ever being forced to veil. But it isn’t the religious basis for covering up that matters most, it’s a woman’s right to choose whether to cover up because of religion,” she writes.
IN PICTURES: Behind the veil