In the clash of cultures between the West and Muslim world, few battles have been more fiercely fought than the one raging in Europe today over the burqa. The burqa, or full-face veil, was the law for women in Afghanistan under the Taliban, and is still worn these days in the more conservative parts of the Middle East, as well as in Europe, raising questions about how far liberal democracies should go in tolerating such dress codes.
Belgium gave an answer Wednesday when parliamentarians backed a draft law that would ban Muslim women from wearing the burqa in public places. The Justice and Home Affairs Committee voted unanimously to endorse the move, which must now be approved by parliament for it to become law. Such a vote is expected by the end of April, which would make Belgium the first European country to implement a ban. Because of the support for the measure among all the main political parties, it is likely to pass.
The draft law would make it illegal to wear clothing that covers all or part of the face, which would also include the facial veil known as the niqab. Defying the rule could lead to nominal fines of $20 to $35 or possible imprisonment for up to seven days. Proponents say they're targeting the burqa not because of its religious symbolism or even because it is widely seen in the West as a sign of male oppression, but rather for safety reasons: they say that people who hide their faces represent a security risk. In that light, the law also seeks to target potentially violent demonstrators who cover their faces, backers say.
But the bill's chief sponsor, Daniel Bacquelaine of the liberal Reformist Movement party, admits that cultural considerations have also come into play. "In an open society, we need common values and we need equal rights and duties," he says. Bacquelaine estimates the burqa is worn by only a few hundred of Belgium's 630,000-strong Muslim population, but the numbers have been rising in the past decade. "It has become a political weapon," he says. "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."
Other European countries are enacting similarly strict laws when it comes to burqas and headscarves. French President Nicolas Sarkozy is pushing for a ban on the burqa to follow a 2004 French law prohibiting students and staff from wearing headscarves and any other "conspicuous" religious symbols in state schools. Headscarves have also been outlawed in schools in the Netherlands, Britain and in many German states, and the Italian government has just started a debate on whether to ban them. The European pushback against Islam has gone even further in Switzerland, where the public last year approved a referendum making it illegal to build minarets on mosques, a move that outraged Muslims in the country.
In Belgium, however, the burqa bill has the cautious support of much of the Muslim community. "Nobody likes somebody covered," says Saïd El Khadraoui, a Belgian Socialist member of the European Parliament. "It is wrong to say the burqa is part of Islam the vast majority of Muslims do not wear it. And it's not a bad idea to give a signal that we need some rules to live together." His sentiments are echoed by Emir Kir, who was born in Belgium to Turkish Muslim parents and is now the Secretary for Public Sanitation and Monument Conservation in the Brussels region. "I don't like the burqa. Every person should be visible. In most cases, it is not a religious act, but macho one," he says. "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."
Kir also wonders whether the bill would be compatible with the Belgian constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights. Indeed, legal concerns led France's Council of State to warn this week that a similar proposal working its way through France's legislative system could be unconstitutional. French politicians are still mulling their options. The leader of Sarkozy's Union for a Popular Movement party has said that while he respects the council's conclusions, the parliament is not bound by them.
The lower house of Belgium's parliament is set to vote on the bill on April 22 and it could enter into law in June or July. But even if the measure is delayed by court challenges, it is still hugely significant for Belgium and its relationship with its Muslim community, according to Carl Devos, a political scientist at Ghent University. "The Muslim community is not yet well-integrated in Belgium. The difference between them and us is still there," he says. "This law draws a line, saying we in western European democracies accept Muslim beliefs, but in order to live together and even communicate we have to be seen."