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Belgium unites to ban the burqa

Despite political chaos, Belgium's parliament passes a nationwide ban of burqas and niqabs almost unanimously.

Salma, a 22-year-old French national living in Belgium who chooses to wear the niqab after converting to Islam, gives an interview outside the Belgian Parliament in Brussels on April 26, 2010. (Yves Herman/Reuters)

BRUSSELS, Belgium — This is a country that currently has no prime minister and no prospect of resolving the bitter political-linguistic breach that caused the cabinet to fall a week ago.

But it is well on its way to having a burqa ban.

Belgium's French and Dutch parties have occasionally refused to even meet with each other and the linguistic divide colors nearly every aspect of politics here. But at the plenary session of the lower house of parliament this afternoon during the debate on outlawing the full Muslim veil, speaker after speaker read from practically the same script to declare the ban the right thing to do. The vote was 136-0, with two abstentions.

The bill now goes to the senate for a mandatory 15-day period of review. Under normal circumstances, if senators approved the measure without changes, it would be published and implemented. However, these are hardly normal circumstances as this legislature awaits its own impending dissolution due to the political stalemate. The date that will happen is still unclear but if it occurs before the burqa ban is approved, the bill ends up on the scrap heap.

But if it does become law, anyone caught with their face fully covered could be fined up to 25 euros ($33) or sent to jail for seven days — except for motorcycle riders, that is. The title of the bill was amended at the last minute on their behalf to note specifically the head-to-toe covering “burqa” and its eye-baring relative, the “niqab,” rather than broadly banning the act of obscuring one’s visage.

It’s somewhat ironic that Belgium would become the first European country with a full federal ban. The percentage of Muslims living here is just 3.6 percent, compared with France’s 10 percent, or the Netherlands' 5.8 percent. Of the roughly 375,000 people who identify themselves as Muslim in Belgium, it’s estimated that several dozen cover their faces.

The measure’s sponsor, Daniel Bacquelaine, head of the French-speaking Liberal Party, said he was proud to lead the world in barring the garment, explaining that the small number of people the law could apply to is irrelevant.

“It’s not a problem of the number of people who wear a burqa,” he said. “It’s really a symbol to say clearly if we want to live together in a free society, we need to recognize each other.”

Bacquelaine suggested that everyone can appreciate how important it is, for example, that teachers can tell children are being picked up after school by the person who really is their mother, or for a bank teller to be able to identify the person trying to withdraw money from an account.

The lawmaker heatedly rejected accusations the bill is anti-Islamic or anti-female. On the contrary, he said it would help all Muslims, and especially women, integrate into society. “I think it’s not really a choice to wear a burqa. If we forbid the veil on the street and in the shops they obtain more freedom to live,” he explained.