Belgian lawmakers vote to ban Islamic burqa in public
An influential committee of Belgian lawmakers has voted to impose a nationwide ban on wearing the Islamic burqa in public, paving the way for the first clampdown of its kind in Europe.
Those who ignore it could face a fine of 15-25 euros (20-34 dollars) and/or a jail sentence of up to seven days, unless they have police permission to wear the garments.
With the governing parties and opposition in agreement, officials expect the full house to easily endorse the draft law on April 22.
"This is a very strong signal that is being sent to Islamists," French-speaking deputy Denis Ducarme, from the centre-right Reformist Movement that proposed the bill, told the assembly in Brussels.
He said he was "proud that Belgium would be the first country in Europe which dares to legislate on this sensitive matter."
"We have to free women of this burden," said his colleague Corinne de Parmentier.
The head of the party, Daniel Bacquelaine, said: "Just like dwarf throwing -- even if it's on a voluntary basis -- the burqa is contrary to the dignity of women. It's a walking prison."
If endorsed, the vote would see the ban 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 would be allowed for certain festivities like carnivals if municipal authorities decide to grant them.
The vice-president of the Muslim Executive of Belgium, Isabelle Praile, warned that the move 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.
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 decision comes amid controversy in the kingdom over the wearing of Muslim religious symbols in public places.
A Muslim mathematics teacher at a municipal school has been given until the middle of next week to return to her classroom after a protracted court battle to stop her wearing a simple veil there or face losing her job.
In June last year, a Belgian lawmaker of Turkish origin was sworn in at the Brussels regional parliament wearing an Islamic 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.
Belgium's far-right Vlaams Belang party welcomed Wednesday's vote.
"It's true that there aren't many burqas in Belgium, but the niqab is starting to appear in the streets," one Vlaams Belang lawmaker warned the assembly.
Controversy has also raged elsewhere in Europe over the wearing of Muslim veils and other religious garments in state or public institutions.
On Tuesday, France's top administrative body ruled that there were no legal grounds for a complete ban on the wearing of full-face veils in public, but it said the burqa could be outlawed in some places for security reasons.
Staunchly secular France passed a law in 2004 banning the wearing of headscarves or any other "conspicuous" religious symbols in state schools.