By Edward Cody
Friday, April 30, 2010; A08
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.
The French government, after months of rancorous debate, has pledged to pass a similar nationwide ban by September, a promise denounced by Muslims as "stigmatization" of their religion. President Nicolas Sarkozy decided last week to introduce the bill despite a warning from the country's constitutional court that a blanket prohibition would probably be unconstitutional.
"The burqa has no place in France," he said.
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. Despite the consternation, women wearing the veils are seen infrequently, even in suburbs with large Muslim populations.
The French Interior Ministry reported that fewer than 2,000 women wear full-face veils in France, out of a Muslim population estimated by the ministry at more than 5 million. In neighboring Belgium, which has a Muslim population of 400,000, no estimates have been published on the number of women who wear veils. But police in Brussels last year stopped 29 women who were seen on the street with their faces covered, in violation of the municipal ban.
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 vote in the Belgian Chamber of Representatives marked a rare moment of accord among the country's political parties. They have been so bitterly split in a feud between Flemish speakers and French speakers that Prime Minister Yves Leterme's government collapsed last week.
In principle, Leterme's cabinet is only handling current affairs pending probable new elections. But the anti-veil measure was put on the agenda Thursday because it was voted out of the Home Affairs Committee unanimously last month and was considered high-priority.
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.
The center-right Reform Movement party, which introduced the legislation, invoked security needs and women's dignity, echoing arguments made in France. But it also called the measure a message to Islamic activists that Belgium will not tolerate challenges to its national values.
Judith Sunderland, senior Western Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch, criticized the legislation as a "lose-lose situation."
"Treating pious Muslim women like criminals won't help integrate them," she said in a statement.
The veil debate in France has more recently been caught up in a political dispute over a veil-wearing woman who was given a traffic ticket in the western city of Nantes for driving with impaired vision. She has denounced her ticket as discrimination, saying she could see just as well with her veil as motorcyclists wearing helmets.
In reaction, Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux, a Sarkozy ally, accused the woman's Algerian-born husband of polygamy and suggested he should be stripped of his French nationality. Hortefeux's gesture was criticized as crude politicking; the newspaper Le Monde published an editorial asking whether it would be more appropriate to strip Hortefeux of his ministerial post.