Belgium passes Europe's first ban on wearing burka in public

Parliament hails bill as victory for women, but Amnesty condemns attack on freedom

The first European ban on the wearing of the Islamic burka in public is poised to come into force in Belgium. A parliamentary vote on a Bill which bans face coverings has raised fears among Muslim groups and human rights campaigners that other countries could follow suit. France is already considering similar legislation.

"We are the first country to break through the chain that has kept countless women enslaved," said Denis Ducarme, a Belgian Liberal party MP. He said that he hoped other European countries would follow Belgium's example. Members of the Belgian House of Representatives called a truce to weeks of bitter feuding caused by the collapse of the government to push through the vote, giving it almost unanimous, cross-party support. The measure now has to be rubber-stamped by the Senate after June general elections to become law.

Amnesty International condemned the move as "an attack on religious freedom". Philippe Hensmans, of Amnesty Belgium, said it had been pushed through without a proper national debate. He said: "It's also not at all clear that it is in line with the Belgian constitution and with international human rights conventions."

The supposed anxiety of politicians in both Belgium and France about the burka "threat" to female dignity and Western values has its cynical side, say critics. But it also points to a Europe-wide shift in fear of Islam away from standard, right-wing race-baiting towards a more middle-class determination to defend liberal values. The Belgian move was particularly striking in that the country's linguistically divided politicians can agree on almost nothing. Yet they were able to find parliamentary time to ban the full-length veil even as the country teeters on the brink of division.

France too, although facing a multitude of economic and social problems is considering "emergency legislation" to ban the burka and niqab before politicians go on holiday in August. Yet the French security services estimate that only 2,000 out of approximately two million adult Muslim women in France – 0.1 per cent – wear the full-length veil. Edouard Delruelle, co-director of the Belgian Institute for Equal Opportunities said only about 215 women "at most" in Belgium wear the burka.

In neither Belgium nor France, is the burka or niqab a rapidly growing phenonemenon. But in both countries, anti-burka legislation has found support across the usual left-right political divide with opposition to the garment creating unnatural alliances between social conservatives and feminist pressure groups.

In Belgium, the idea was first proposed by the Flemish far right as "a first step against Islamisation". In France, the idea was first raised last summer by a communist mayor and parliamentarian as a necessary defence of the Republican values of "liberty" and "equality". President Nicolas Sarkozy ran with the idea, seemed to lose interest and then insisted earlier this month in pushing ahead before the end of July. His unpopularity and need to prop up his right-wing core support may have influenced his decision.

But the proposed French ban is supported by several senior figures on the French centre-left (and opposed by others). It is strongly supported by the feminist group, Ni putes Ni Soumises, which works for women's rights in the heavily male-dominated, racially-mixed French suburbs. They view it as an important declaration that certain Western values, including female equality, are not consistent with the more extreme forms of Islam.

The draft French anti-burka law will say that "no one can wear a costume in public places intended to hide the face", according to a leaked draft. The fine for a first offence will be €150 (£130). Forcing a woman to wear a full-length veil by "violence or threats" will also be an offence, punishable by a fine of €15,000.

The Belgian Bill outlaws any clothing that partly or fully covers the face and worn in public. Anyone flouting the rule could face a fine of up to €25 and, in theory, up to seven days in prison, though legislators say it is highly unlikely that would be ever be imposed. Builders, nurses or other professionals who might need to cover their faces have been exempted from the Bill.

Local authorities in Belgium have already been allowed to clamp down on head-coverings. Jan Creemers, the Mayor of Maaseik, a small town on the Dutch-German border, said he had used a local ruling to deal with a group of heavily veiled women. "It became a problem in our town because we had about 50 women who walked around like that, which really annoyed many other residents. They kept coming to me to ask me to do something about it," he told Belgian radio. "I spoke to a couple of these ladies to ask them very simply not to wear this kind of clothing. But one in particular refused point-blank so eventually the police opened legal proceedings against her."

Michel Doomst, a Flemish MP, added: "If you have people who cover themselves up entirely, it sends out a very wrong signal to society. And that's why there was so much pressure from parliamentarians and why there's been cross-party support to do something about it."

But it could be many months before the Senate endorses the ruling. The present political upheavals and disputes between the Francophones and Flemish over language and voting rights make it likely that it will slip to the bottom of the agenda, and constitutional experts are likely to refine the legal wording of the text, parliamentarians say.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Louis Theroux: By Reason of Insanity takes him behind the bars again
tvBy Reason of Insanity, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap
videoThe political parody genius duo strike again with new video
Seth Rollins cashes in his Money in the Bank contract to win the WWE World Heavyweight Championship
WWERollins win the WWE World Heavyweight title in one of the greatest WrestleMania's ever seen
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Call Handler

£14500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a Sales Ca...

Recruitment Genius: Support Worker

£14560 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company offers unique pers...

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor