Belgium Stands United on Burqa Ban

Divided country finds consensus on banning Islamic veils.

ByABC News
April 30, 2010, 11:02 AM

April 30, 2010 — -- Belgium may be in the throes of political disarray, but its squabbling political parties have been able to agree on one thing: The banning of the burqa in public. If the legislation is approved, the Benelux country would become the first in Europe to ban the Islamic face-covering veil.

The lower house of parliament voted on Thursday to ban clothes or veils that did not allow the wearer to be fully identified, including the full-body veil, known as the burqa, and the face veil which leaves slits for the eyes, known as the niqab.

A cross-party consensus of 136 deputies voted for the measure, with just two abstentions and no opposing votes. The ban still has to be passed by the Senate, which has two weeks to raise any objections. But a final vote on the controversial measure could be delayed until after early elections, which are likely to be held in June.

The election is necessary following the collapse of Prime Minister Yves Leterme's government on April 22 over a language dispute between the Flemish-speaking and French-speaking parties.

Belgium shares the anxieties of many European countries about its Muslim minorities and the issue of national identity. The wearing of traditional conservative Islamic dress is regarded by many Belgians as a refusal to assimilate into Western society.

"It's not about introducing any form of discrimination," Daniel Bacquelaine, the head of the Francophone liberal Reformist Movement (MR) party and instigator of the bill said on Thursday. He told lawmakers that the ban was against clothing "aimed at stopping people from being identified."

Exceptions are to be made for motorbike couriers and fire fighters, and may possibly be lifted during the country's carnival season, when people often wear masks.

Wearing the niqab or burqa in public streets and parks, sports grounds or buildings "meant for public use or to provide services" could lead to fines of €15-25 ($20-33) and imprisonment for up to seven days. The burqa, often worn in Afghanistan, is not a common site in Belgium.