Belgium Bans Burqas Starting Next Week

Beginning on July 23, Belgium will become the second European country to ban the burqa and the niqab, following France, whose anti-veiling law went into effect in April. The Belgian law forbids women to wear any garment that covers their face and body, with a penalty of 137.50 euros ($195) and up to seven days in jail as a punishment for infringement.

Like France and Australia, where a new draft law which would require women in full, face-covering veils to remove their coverings for police officers, was recently introduced, women who wear the burqa or niqab are a tiny minority of the Belgian population. In Belgium, between 200 and 300 of the country’s hundreds of thousands of Muslims veil their faces and bodies, and the trend of women appearing in public in full veils does not seem to be increasing.

But like in France, Belgian legislators are using a heavy-handed rhetoric of women’s liberation to justify what Amnesty International condemned as an “attack on religious freedom.” In spring 2010, when the law was sponsored in the Belgian parliament, the bill’s chief proponent said that although security concerns (like those cited in the Australia law) were a consideration, cultural values were also a strong motivator behind the law.

“[The burqa] has become a political weapon,” Daniel Bacquelaine of the liberal Reformist Movement party told Time. “There is nothing in Islam or the Koran about the burqa. It has become an instrument of intimidation, and is a sign of submission of women. And a civilized society cannot accept the imprisonment of women.”

After a long approval process, the ban is set to go into effect next week. The question is whether the law will raise the same protests that were immediately sparked when the French burqa ban became law. Spokespeople for the Muslim community seemed disturbed by the bill’s passage last spring, even though they admitted that veiling was not common practice for most Belgian Muslims.

“I don’t like the burqa. Every person should be visible. In most cases, it is not a religious act, but macho one,” said Emir Kir, the Secretary for Public Sanitation and Monument Conservation in the Brussels region. ”But I wonder if we need a law on it. If we do this, we could make it a symbol and reinforce extremists on all sides. And in the middle of this economic crisis, where everyone is concerned about their job, this is not the number one problem.”