Belgium's lower house of Parliament on Thursday banned burqa-type Islamic dress in public, but the measure faces a challenge in the Senate which will delay early enactment of the law. Christian Democrats and Liberals in the Senate questioned the phrasing of the law, which holds no one can appear in public "with the face fully or partly covered so as to render them no longer unrecognizable."
Following the fall of Premier Yves Leterme's government April 22, Belgium faces early elections that may delay passage of the Belgian anti-burqa ban, Europe's first, by several months. Both houses of parliament must approve the bill.
Approval in the lower house was almost unanimous. Like elsewhere in Europe, Belgium struggles with anxieties that visible signs of Islam erode national identity and that women in traditional conservative Islamic dress, such as the burqa, the chador and the niqab, signal a refusal to assimilate in western society.
The law's author, Daniel Bacquelaine, a Liberal, said a burqa is incompatible with basic security as everyone in public must be recognizable and clashes with the principles of an emancipated society that respects the rights of all.
Burqa-type Islamic dress that fully covers a woman and most or all of her face is not common in Europe.
Last year, the city of Brussels fined only 29 women, down from 33 in 2008, for wearing a burqa-type dress. In Belgium, local rules ban the burqa, but enforcement is spotty and the new law would outlaw it on a national level.
In January, Denmark's center-right government called the burqa and the niqab out of step with Danish values. It held off on a ban after finding that only two or three women in Denmark, a nation of 5.5 million people, wear burqas and perhaps 200 wear niqabs. In France, a nation of 65 million people, the government estimates 1,900 women cover their faces with niqabs, a scarf that exposes only the eyes, or sitars, a filmy veiled cloth thrown over the head to cover the entire face.
France banned Muslim head scarves as well as Jewish skullcaps and Christian crosses from schools in 2004.
President Nicolas Sarkozy says the burqa "is not welcome" in France, but questions have been raised about the constitutionality of a ban.
Although their ranks are growing, Muslims make up only small minorities in Western Europe.
France has the largest Muslim population, an estimated 5 million, or 7.5 per cent of the population, followed by the Netherlands with 6 percent, Germany with 5 per cent, Austria with 4.2 per cent, Belgium with 3 percent and Britain with 2.7 per cent, according to a 2009 study of the Pew Research Center in Washington.