Belgium set to become first EU country to ban burqas

March 31st, 2010 - 10:42 pm ICT by IANS  

Brussels, March 31 (DPA) Belgium Wednesday moved a step closer to becoming the first European Union (EU) country to punish Muslim women who hide their faces in public, as the interior affairs committee of its parliament passed a resolution against burqas.
Burqas are full-length, head-to-toe garments which obscure a woman’s face completely, usually with a semi-transparent section that allows the wearer to see out.

Belgian media reported that according to the draft law approved by the committee, anyone caught “in public places with their face completely or partly covered or masked, so that they are no longer identifiable,” should be punished with a 15 to 25 euros fine ($20 to 34) and/or serve from one to seven days in prison.

The draft law would also allow local authorities to slap offenders with administrative fines of up to 250 euros, in case they are let off by the criminal justice system.

Exceptions are to be made for policemen, firemen and motorcyclists wearing helmets, as well as for people taking part in public events authorised by the police.

The proposal - presented by socialist, liberal and conservative parties - was approved unanimously. Only the Greens expressed reservations, warning that the new law could fall foul of the Belgian Constitution or of the European Convention of Human Rights.

Similar concerns have been expressed by a top administrative court in France, where a similar ban is being debated.

Critics say that burqas should be banned because they are symbols of female submission. Opponents of a ban stress that they are a religious symbol, and should be respected as such.

According to a poll published in early March by the daily newspaper Financial Times, outlawing Muslim face veils is a popular measure in Western Europe.

Around 70 percent of the population in France, 65 percent in Spain, 63 percent in Italy, 53 percent in Britain and 50 percent in Germany are said to support the move, compared to 33 percent in the US.

Muslim face veils were banned from French state schools in 2004, when a law against wearing religious symbols was passed. But Belgium would be the first member of the EU to introduce a total ban.

The burqa ban is expected to enter into force before the summer, as the full assembly of the Belgian parliament is set to give its final assent to the new law in mid-April.

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