Belgium: Lawmakers Move to Ban Burqas Worn in Public

New York Times

In a reflection of growing anxiety in Europe over the use of Islamic symbols, a committee of Belgian lawmakers voted Wednesday to ban the wearing of burqas in public, paving the way for the first clampdown of its kind on the Continent. The proposal, which will be put to the full Parliament after the Easter break, highlights the political sensitivity of Islamic dress for European politicians grappling with the challenges of integrating its expanding Muslim population. It came in the midst of debates in France and the Netherlands over the wearing of head scarves or veils, and followed a referendum vote in Switzerland against building minarets.

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.”

Caroline Sagesser, a social policy expert at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, said the move was more significant politically than in terms of social impact.

“Since there are so few burqas in Belgium, it is highly symbolic and is to appease public opinion,” she said.

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.

Across the European Union the pattern is not uniform, either. Britain has no laws against Islamic dress, for example.

On Tuesday, France’s top administrative body, the State Council, advised the government that there were no legal grounds for a complete ban on the wearing of full-face veils in public — a proposal a panel of French legislators has endorsed — but added that the burqa could be outlawed in some places for security reasons.

France, where secularism is an important element of public life, passed a law in 2004 banning the wearing of head scarves or any other conspicuous religious symbols in state schools.

In the Netherlands several possible measures on the wearing of veils have been discussed, including measures that would ban the garments for teachers and civil servants.


Published: March 31, 2010