The latest round in the battle of the burqa kicks off Thursday in Belgium, which could become the first country in Europe to ban face coverings worn by observant Muslim women.
Lawmakers are considering a ban in all public places on niqabs, veils that cover the face, as well as burqas, which cover the face and everything else from head to toe.
They’re motivated both by security and morality, they say.
“We think all people in public places must show their face,” says Denis Ducarme. And, he says, “We must defend our values in the question of the freedom and the dignity of the woman.”
His liberal Reformist Movement drafted the legislation, and claims broad cross-party support.
Ducarme denies that Islam requires women to wear burqas or niqabs.
“The majority of Muslims in Belgium and Europe don’t accept the burqa, don’t accept the niqab. It’s only 10 percent who are radical,” he says, blaming trends from Pakistan and Afghanistan for encouraging facial covering.
And he rejects the suggestion that the proposed ban smacks of intolerance, saying it is the burqa — and the Islamist movement — that are truly intolerant and dangerous.
One town in Belgium banned the burqa six years ago.
Jan Creemers, the mayor of the tiny picture-postcard city of Maaseik, says it was no problem to enforce the ban: “I had always the support of the Moroccan community here in Maaseik.”
Some fines were handed out, he says. None were paid, but no one wears a veil in Maaseik today, he says.
The bill before the Chamber of Deputies on Thursday would impose a fine of 15-25 euros ($20-33) or imprisonment of one to seven days.
Amnesty International warned Wednesday that the bill would break international law.
“A general ban on the wearing of full face veils would violate the rights to freedom of expression and religion of those women who choose to express their identity or beliefs in this way,” said Claudio Cordone, Amnesty International’s interim secretary general.
“Women must not be compelled to wear a headscarf or veil, either by the state or by individuals; and it is wrong for them to be prohibited by law from wearing it,” Cordone said in a written statement.
Analysts noted that in Belgium, where the sight of women wearing burqas is relatively rare, the measure would have a limited practical impact, though it could prove politically symbolic.
“This is a very strong signal that is being sent to Islamists,” the French-speaking liberal deputy Denis Ducarme said, adding that he was “proud that Belgium would be the first country in Europe which dares to legislate on this sensitive matter.”
The bill could mean a ban being imposed on wearing burqas, or full-length garments that prevent women being identified, in streets, public gardens and sports grounds or buildings “meant for public use.”
Exceptions would be possible for some festivities if the municipal authorities decide to grant them, and those breaking the law could face small fines or imprisonment for between one and seven days.
The unanimity with which the measure was approved by the home affairs committee suggests strong cross-party support when the measure is discussed by the full Parliament of Belgium, a predominantly Roman Catholic country.
The vice president of the Muslim Executive of Belgium, Isabelle Praile, criticized the move as an infringement of civil liberties.
“Will it be the Islamic veil tomorrow and the Sikh turban the day after?” she said, according to the Belga news agency. “I am against the imposition of such clothing, but also against banning it.”
Ironically, some of the most likely offenders against any new law could be wealthy visitors from the Gulf states staying in the city’s luxury hotels and visiting its most exclusive stores, she added.
Ms. Sagesser said that the more salient issue in Belgium, over the wearing of veils or head scarves in schools, rests with the tier of government devolved to the different linguistic communities in Belgium. That removes it from the authority of the Belgian federal Parliament.
In Dutch-speaking Flanders, wearing of head scarves by pupils is banned in public schools but not private ones.
It was assumed that the law prevented teachers both in Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia from wearing head scarves, though a recent ruling in Charleroi permitted a mathematics teacher to continue to wear a simple veil, Ms. Sagesser said.
“This is something the public feels strongly about, and we have the impression that, in France, they were able to take some tougher measures. But we are failing to tackle the real issue of integration which is a socio-economic one,” she added.
But even in Belgium the picture is mixed; in June last year, Mahinur Özdemir became the first lawmaker to be sworn into the Brussels regional Parliament wearing a hijab, or Islamic head scarf.