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.

footballLIVE City face Stoke, while Warnock returns to Palace dugout
Life and Style
3D printed bump keys can access almost any lock
gadgets + techSoftware needs photo of lock and not much more
Paul McCartney backs the
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment
Inside the gallery at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow
tvSimon Usborne goes behind the scenes to watch the latest series
Life and Style
Silvia says of her famous creation: 'I never stopped wearing it. Because I like to wear things when they are off the radar'
fashionThe fashion house celebrated fifteen years of the punchy pouch with a weighty tome
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
i100Steve Carell selling chicken, Tina Fey selling saving accounts and Steve Colbert selling, um...
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
newsThe industry's trade body issued the moratorium on Friday
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
The slice of Prince Charles and Princess Diana's wedding cake and the original box from 29 July 1981
newsPiece of Charles and Diana's wedding cake sold at auction in US
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

C# .NET Web Developer (ASP.NET, JavaScript, jQuery, XML, XLST)

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Web De...

Clinical Negligence Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: HAMPSHIRE MARKET TOWN - A highly attr...

Network Engineer (CCNP, CCNA, Linux, OSPF, BGP, Multicast, WAN)

£35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Network Engineer (CCNP, CCNA, Linux, OSPF,...

Commercial Property Solicitor - Bristol

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: A VERY HIGH QUALITY FIRM A high qual...

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone