PARIS — Belgian lawmakers on Thursday passed a nationwide ban prohibiting women from wearing full-face Islamic veils in public places, the first move of its kind in Western Europe.
The unanimous vote in the lower house of Parliament came in response to growing irritation in Belgium and other West European countries over the increasing numbers and visibility of Muslims whose customs and attitudes often present a challenge to the continent’s largely Christian heritage.
Similar bills have been introduced in the parliaments of Italy and the Netherlands, where local jurisdictions have already imposed more-limited anti-veil measures. Two dozen communities in Belgium also have decreed local bans, including Brussels, the capital.
According to Human Rights Watch, the U.S.-based advocacy group, political figures in Switzerland and Austria have suggested that legislation such as Belgium’s would be a good idea in their countries as well. Farther north, Denmark’s government issued a statement in January saying the full-face veil was out of sync with Danish values, but decided against legislation because few women wear such garments.
Swiss voters, in a referendum in December, barred Muslims from building minarets, or towers, to call the faithful to prayer. Their vote, widely decried as anti-Islamic by Muslim and human rights groups, generated favorable comment from conservative French politicians along with suggestions that France should impose a similar minaret ban.
But nothing has aroused more resentment than the sight of women on the streets of European cities covered from head to toe in dark robes with only a slit or a screen at eye level.
The full veil has been condemned by European politicians of the right and left as an affront to the dignity of women and, because it hides a woman’s face, as a security risk in schools, banks and government offices. André Gerin, a member of Parliament who led a nine-month inquiry into the full-face veil in France, also qualified it as the tip of an iceberg behind which lurk radical Islamic preachers seeking to impose a fundamentalist and politicized vision of their religion on French Muslims.
The bill forbids anyone to appear in public with his or her face hidden in a way that makes identification impossible. Violators would face fines of $18 to $28 and prison terms of one to seven days.
The measure must now be voted on by the Senate. With elections on the horizon and only a caretaker government in place, it could be some time before it is promulgated and goes into effect.