BRUSSELS – As L'Anglophone went to press
, the fate of a nationwide "burqa ban" was in the hands of the senat
, the upper house of Belgium's federal parliament. On Thursday 27 April, the bill cleared its penultimate
hurdle by passing in the chambre
(lower house), where the vote was 136-0, with two abstentions.
The text of the proposed law proscribes having "the face fully or partly covered so as to render [a person] no longer unrecognizable" and does not specifically mention the burqa or niqab. While ski masks would therefore also be illegal under the ruling, the garments worn by Muslim women were the primary topic of debate in the Interior Affaris committee, and some politicians made it perfectly clear for whom the law is intended.
Daniel Bacquelaine, leader in the chambre for the liberal Francophone Mouvement Réformateur (MR
) party, cited security concerns and also compared the wearing of the burqa to the spectacle of throwing dwarves. "Even if it is done voluntarily," he said, "the burqa is contrary to the dignity of women. It is a walking prison."
MP Denis Ducarme (MR
) commented that the ban is "a strong signal sent to Islamists," expressing his "pride" that Belgium will become the first country to officially ban the full body veil.
If enacted, the burqa and niqab would be banned from all public venues, with violators subject to fines of 15-25 euros and possible jail terms of 1 to 7 days.
One benefit of the law, explained Georges Dallemagne (cdH) in the committee hearing, would be the harmonization of conflicting laws among the communes. The burqa is already prohibited in the commune of Brussels, for example, and yet it is permitted in Ixelles. Further, noted Mr. Dallemagne, other communes - including Auderghem, Watermael-Boitsfort and Uccle - ban covering the face with certain exceptions including carnaval and Halloween.
In the police jurisdiction known as Bruxelles-ouest, for example - an area comprised of Berchem-Sainte-Agathe, Ganshoren, Koekelberg, Jette, and Molenbeek -it is illegal to "present oneself masked or disguised in public" in any way without the express permission of the mayor's office. Violators in Bruxelles-Ouest face fines of 150 euros. Similar laws have been on the books in other communes for years; some consider transvestites to be "in disguise" as well.
The potential impact of a "burqa ban" on the "headscarf" debate remains unclear. The Muslim headscarf, which does not cover the face, has also been banned in all public schools in Flanders, although the ban has been suspended since March 18 due to a dispute over whether the ban falls under the jurisdiction of the education council or the Flemish parliament.
Belgium would be the first country in Europe to impose such a ban in public spaces. In France, a "burqa ban" measure is expected to be presented to that country's Council of Ministers in May, with a possible vote as early as July. Similar legislation is being debated in the Canadian province of Quebec.