CAIRO: In a rare show of unity on Wednesday, the Belgian home affairs committee of the federal parliament spoke in a single voice and issued a decision to ban the niqab and burqa in public spaces.
The new law states that anyone in public "with their face covered or disguised in whole or in part to the extent that s/he cannot be identified" is subject to penalties, ranging from fines to jail punishment up to seven days.
Given the unanimous support for this decision, there is little doubt that the law will pass in the Parliament’s general assembly mid-April. Probably in force by summer, the prohibition will deny fully veiled people access to all public spaces — streets, public transportation, restaurants, shops or schools.
"I am proud that Belgium would be the first country in Europe which dares to legislate on this sensitive matter," the center-right MP Denis Ducarme said, referring to the Europe-wide discussion about imposing restrictions on religious-animated clothing.
Curiously, neither niqab nor burqa are a social issue in Belgium: Out of the 500,000 Muslims, only very few women are fully veiled. Responding to the law’s minor consequences, Daniel Bacquelaine, the liberal MP who proposed the bill, said: “We have to act as of today to avoid [its] development."
In France, where the project of banning the full veil has been under discussion for months and is vehemently supported by President Sarkozy, the State Council just issued a warning against it, hereby seconding the recommendation of the council of Europe early this March not to legislate a ban against the full veil.
“We cannot allow someone to claim the right to look at others without being seen,” Bacquelaine added. Public security is the official motivation behind the ban, a completely arguable justification: People must be identifiable at any moment to guarantee public safety.
Putting aside the debate over whether or not the face-veil is a symbol of women’s oppression or a manifestation of freedom express their religious belief, discussion of the niqab, burqa and hijab addresses the question of European identity and the social integration of European citizens of Muslim background.
The ban also addresses the fear of alienation through Muslim culture that is spreading among Europeans: A fully veiled face is often considered an aggressive rejection of communication and integration in society.
Although the move may be seen as more of a symbolic act than one with concrete consequences, Isabelle Praile, vice-president of the Muslim Executive of Belgium, sees the danger of the decision in its possible follow-up.
"Today it’s the full-face veil. Tomorrow it’s the veil, the day after it will be Sikh turbans, and then perhaps it will be miniskirts," she told AFP.