Belgium unites to ban the burqa

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.

Feminist activist Yasmina Akhandaf is clearly exasperated by such arguments. Born and raised in the northern city Antwerp, she helped found a group whose name translates as “Boss Over One’s Own Head,” which is suing the city over its ban on wearing any religious headgear in public schools or government jobs.

Akhandaf insisted the pro-ban side’s humanitarian arguments are completely backward. “You can never fight an oppression with another oppression,” she said. She maintained that the majority of women who cover themselves do so by choice, while acknowledging that some are forced to cover their heads and faces.

What ban supporters refuse to grasp, she explained with frustration, is that for those women the burqa, or niqab or headscarf, which is also banned in some Belgian cities, is their passage to freedom.

“That is the key to liberate them,” Akhandaf exclaimed, “to get them out of the house, to get them to school, to get a good job. The only way to free yourself is by being financially independent.”

As for the burqa, Akhandaf said that because there are so few women in Belgium who do cover their faces, she believes the law is designed to be more provocative than practical. She said Belgium is willfully stoking Islamophobia and she is deeply disappointed in her politicians.

“It’s frustrating, it’s embarrassing and it’s kind of frightening," she said. "As a public servant, you are supposed to bring people together, not separate them more.”

Public, legislative and judicial debates over the acceptability of Muslim head coverings have been going on for years in European countries, primarily in Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany and the Netherlands. The debates focus mostly on headscarfs, which are already banned in many cities across Europe.

The push for doing away with the full coverings is more recent. Ever more headline-grabbing than the Belgians, the French are moving quickly on their own ban, as President Nicolas Sarkozy has become an ardent advocate. His government has said it will on May 19 propose a law that would cover tourists as well as the estimated 1,000 to 2,000 French burqa-wearers, despite being warned by legal authorities it may well be unconstitutional. Belgium was also undaunted by legal opinions indicating measures like this might not hold up in court.

Addressing himself to all governments enthusiastic about pursuing their own measures, Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, has come out against the bans on human rights grounds.

“Rulings anywhere that women must wear the burqa should be condemned,” Hammarberg wrote, “but banning such dresses here would be wrong."

Hammarberg noted nations’ obligations to uphold the European Convention on Human Rights and cited legal precedents that go against such limitations. In addition, Hammarberg wrote that ban supporters “have not managed to show that these garments in any way undermine democracy, public safety, order or morals.”

Judith Sunderland of Human Rights Watch (HRW) said she has been a bit surprised by how little debate consideration of the ban generated in Belgium. Her organization wants to make some noise about it. “It’s an issue that says a lot about the tensions in European society today between Muslims and non-Muslims,” she said.

And while Belgium may be a foregone conclusion, Sunderland said HRW will continue working in other countries, trying to “frame the debate from a human rights perspective which we hope can inform better legislative decisions, at the very least.”

That may be an uphill battle, if new figures on public opinion toward Islam are a fair indication. The Spanish BBVA Foundation just released a survey taken in 12 European Union states that showed 52.6 percent of respondents were "opposed" or "totally opposed" to what the study called a “veil” in any public places. Bulgaria had the highest level of opposition with 84.3 percent, followed by France with 68.7 percent.

Belgium was not far behind with 59.9 percent of its public in favor of a ban. But in a couple of weeks, it could be first to make that the policy of 100 percent of Belgians.