Despite Belgium’s multifarious governance problems, the country’s lower house has still found the time to approve legislation banning the burqa in public. In a near-unanimous vote on Thursday (29 April), the chamber approved a bill targeting the burqa, the niqab and anyone covering their face with an item of clothing. The law would outlaw appearing in public “with the face fully or partly covered so as to render them no longer recognisable.”
There is an exception for motorcycle riders wearing their helmets.Individuals caught wearing the burqa could be fined between €15 and €20, and possibly be jailed for up to a week. The law could also be employed to prevent protesters from covering their faces while demonstrating.However, the upper chamber may yet block passage of the bill.
On 22 April, the government of Yves Leterme fell over a long-standing electoral district dispute between Flemings and francophones. With elections in the offing, the bill could still be delayed for months. If passed however, it would make Belgium the first EU state to ban the veil. France is also to begin considering a similar draft law in May.
Critics of the legislation say that very few women in Belgium wear the burqa and that the law would marginalise the Muslim community as a whole. Of the around 375,000 Muslims in Belgium, it is thought that only a few dozen wear the burqa.
Amnesty International, the human rights organisation, attacked the bill saying that it set “a dangerous precedent.” “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 the group’s John Dalhuisen.