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Sat 1 May 2010 08:49 AM

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Belgian vote on Muslim veils could echo in Europe

This week, the Belgian parliament voted to ban wearing of full face veils in public.

Belgian vote on Muslim veils could echo in Europe
BURQA BAN: Forcing a woman to wear a full veil will be immediately punishable by up to one year in jail under the law. (Getty Images)

Belgium's vote to ban full face veils in public is the furthest any European country has gone to confront a tiny minority whose choice in clothing has come to symbolise the issue of integrating some Muslim minorities.

The lower house of parliament in Brussels passed the draft law almost unanimously Thursday evening. It could become law in the coming months as the Senate is not expected to block it.

France, home to Europe's biggest Muslim minority, is next in line, planning to debate a draft law from mid-May and ban all face veils in public within months. Polls say about 70 percent of voters want some ban, but not all back a complete one.

Full facial veils - known as niqabs or burqas - are extremely rare in Europe, but the number of women wearing them is rising. No exact figures exist, but estimates put the totals at about 2,000 in France and a few hundred in Belgium.

Promoters of a ban denounce the veils as a threat to public security, an affront to women's dignity, a negation of gender equality or an intrusion of religion on public life. Concern over radical Islamism echoes through their arguments.

Bans are under debate in several other European states. Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann said this week a veil ban was "conceivable" there and his minister for women supported one in public buildings, banks, hospitals and offices.

Far-right leader Geert Wilders, whose political clout could grow in the Dutch general elections in June, advocates outlawing face veils there. Right-wing groups in Switzerland and Italy have also urged bans, but no action seems likely there soon.

The moves toward a full veil ban have evoked protests from Muslim leaders in Europe, many of whom do not consider veiling obligatory in Islam but resent laws that single out Muslims.

"We have to condemn both the notion of imposing and the notion of banning," said Isabelle Praille, vice president of the Executive of Belgian Muslims.

"The Belgian move to ban full face veils, the first in Europe, sets a dangerous precedent," said John Dalhuisen of Amnesty International. "Restrictions on human rights must always be proportionate to a legitimate goal. A total ban on full face veils would not be."

Under Belgium's draft law, wearing a full facial veil could lead to fines of 15-25 euros (about $20 to $33) and imprisonment for up to seven days.

According to the Paris daily Le Figaro, Paris plans to slap a 150 euro ($200) fine on women wearing full veils, with stiffer penalties for people who force others to veil themselves.

Le Figaro said the government's draft bill, which has yet to be presented to the cabinet and parliament, says people who use "violence, threats, abuse of power or authority" to make women cover themselves would face a 15,000 euro fine.

"Nobody can wear a garment in public aimed at hiding their face," reads article 1 of the French draft bill, Le Figaro said. Article 2 says "instigation to hide someone's face because of their gender" is a criminal offence.

French officials say the law could include a six-month introduction period, during which police would stop veiled women on the street and explain the law but not fine them.

President Nicolas Sarkozy has described the full veil as demeaning to women, and most French are in favor of outlawing it at least from certain public spaces such as town halls, opinion polls have shown. (Reuters)

peter 9 years ago

in a muslim regime country like KSA now women is allowed to go out without wearing niqabs even if they were christians,so the european country has the full right to implement the christian law.

Saeed 9 years ago

Its a shame that Peter, presumably a Christian enjoying the freedoms that non-Muslims have in Dubai is comparing Saudia to Belgium Saudi is the most conservative Muslim nation, why not compare to Belgium to Dubai, Egypt, Jordan, all places where women dont even have to cover their? In Dubai you even see women wearing stuff that would make them feel very uneasy in rural USA. All the people calling for a veil ban seem to be comparing the entire European continent with Saudi Arabia, conveniently overlooking thattens of other Muslim countries offer people relative freedom to wear what they want.

peter 9 years ago

Speaking about dubai, its a cosmopolitan city and most of the investors there are european,therefore dubai cannot implement the rules that KSA is implementing.the rule is to respect the rigime of the country we are living in, and we have to respect eachothers believes and rules, because at the end of the day we all believe in one a christian i have to respect the rules of others when am living in a muslim regime and this should be done by the Muslims.

Jakob 9 years ago

Why don't you people stop making this discussion a matter of religion. It's a security issue for us. we are not allowed to cover our faces in public places. No Bank will serve you and you are denied access to governmental buildings because no one can tell who is behind the fabric. I do not really care for the law, it is not new. And mind you guys, we are not talking about the scarf or the abaya, we are talking about the Niqab or the Burqa as worn in Afghanistan for example.

nick stavros 9 years ago

Dear Peter The problem with your thinking is that Europe admits it has no religion and is secular and welcomes all religions. So why is it picking on one religion only? Let Europe admit it's Christian and implement any laws it wants. After all since countries reserve the right to an official Language and Currency, why not a religion too. Islamic countries do, at least there's no hypocricy.

Call2 9 years ago

I think you are all missing the point. From a European point of view this is not a matter of religion, on the contrary, European states do several things to promote freedom of religion. Why the issue has blown out to the brink of making law against covering the face is the unacceptability, from a European point of view, that fathers and brothers are in some cases forcing female family members to cover their face. It is this practise the Europeans are targeting and that furiates Europeans mind. Then again, I do think you should find other means to stop this than legally banning face coerving for those who does it by own choise.

Mohamed 9 years ago

This ban contradicts the value of personal freedom and freedom of expression that are portrayed as sacred in Europe.

James 9 years ago

The great thing about the UAE is that its rulers are 100% behind their people and their faith, they impose strict rules so that outsiders do not effect their way of life or their culture and beliefs, I as a westerner living in Dubai obey these rules and have no problem with it at all, therefore if the ruler says no kissing in public or otherwise you go to prison then I will obey this, now if you are a muslim in europe and they decide to ban the veil as it is not in their interests then you must do as I and obey the rules. Its a bit hypocritical coming on here saying its a outrage when all they are doing is setting their own rules in their own kingdom !!

Saeed 9 years ago

I think that James is misinterpreting the tolerance in Dubai. You seem to believe that Dubai is very strict wrt rules, whereas the reality is that Dubai is very liberal when compared to the Arab world. Many Dubai natives would have no problem if westerners were forbidden from wearing sleeveless dresses. However, its a sign of Dubai's tolerance that westerners are allowed to wear pretty much anything they want. So its wrong to think that Dubai's rules are "strict". Speak to UAE citizens, most of them think that the present rules are too lenient in favor of non-Muslims, but they are ok with it !

Mohamed 9 years ago

Your logic would be perfectly right if Europe was not putting itself on a higher moral ground and preaching others about freedom of expression and other individual freedoms. What is truly hypocritical is to use such values when it serves their interests and abandon them at other times. Europeans should decide whether they hold on to the so called universal values that they preach others, and adhere to them or clearly state that they implement what fits their own values and culture (which may or may not work in other places in the world).