Islamic Veils Face Ban in Belgium; Human Rights Group Call Law a 'Lose-Lose'

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The Guardian/UK

Islamic Veils Face Ban in Belgium; Human Rights Group Call Law a 'Lose-Lose'

Belgium to outlaw burqas and niqabs in public but human rights campaigners say ban violates religious freedom

by
Mark Tran

Belgium is set to outlaw Islamic veils. (Photograph: Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

Belgium's
parliament is expected to pass a law today that would ban Islamic veils
in public, making it the first European country to ban the wearing of
the burqa or niqab.

The bill, which has been criticised by human rights campaigners as a violation of the fundamental right to freedom of religion, was voted for unanimously by the lower chamber's home affairs committee last month.

The
law would make it a crime to be in a public place with one's face
partially or wholly concealed in a way that would make identification
impossible. Violators would be subject to a fine of €15-€25 (£12-£21)
with a possible prison sentence of one to seven days.

There are
no official statistics on how many women wear face-covering veils,
though analysts agree it is a marginal phenomenon among the roughly
400,000 Muslims living in Belgium (about 4% of the country's
population). In 2009, 29 women were stopped by police in eight
municipalities in the Brussels region that already ban the full Muslim
veil.

A similar move is being considered in France, where President Nicolas Sarkozy has ordered legislation
paving the way for a total ban on the full Islamic veil. Sarkozy is
moving ahead on the ban despite the advice of experts who warned that
such a broad ban risked contravening France's constitution.

Sarkozy
has repeatedly said that such clothing oppresses women and is "not
welcome" in France. A government spokesman, Luc Chatel, said after
yesterday's weekly cabinet meeting that the president decided the
government should submit a bill to parliament in May on an overall ban
on burqa-like veils.

"The ban on veils covering the whole face
should be general, in every public space, because the dignity of women
cannot be put in doubt," Chatel said.

The decision to seek a full
ban, rather than a limited ban, came as a surprise. After a cabinet
meeting just a week ago, the government spokesman announced a decision
for legislation that bans the veil but takes into account conclusions
by the council of state, France's highest administrative office.

The
council advised that a full ban would be "legally very fragile". A
six-month parliamentary inquiry concluded that a full ban would raise
constitutional issues, as well as enforcement problems.

Muslim leaders in France say that the face-covering veil is not a religious requirement of Islam
but have cautioned against banning the garment. Of France's estimated
five million Muslims, only a tiny minority wear the full veil. Some
critics of the ban have warned that such a move will serve merely to
reinforce the alienation of those women from mainstream society.

Human Rights Watch has strongly criticised planned legislation to ban face-covering veils on human rights and practical grounds.

"Bans
like this lead to a lose-lose situation," said Judith Sunderland,
senior western Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch. "They violate
the rights of those who choose to wear the veil and do nothing to help
those who are compelled to do so."

The group argues that there is
no evidence that wearing the full veil in public threatens public
safety, public order, health, morals, or the fundamental rights and
freedoms of others - the only legitimate grounds for interference with
fundamental rights, it said. Rather than help women who are coerced
into wearing the veil, a ban would limit, if not eliminate, their
ability to seek advice and support.

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