Belgium became Europe's first country to vote for a ban on the full Islamic veil or burqa, sparking dismay Friday among Muslims and warnings of setting a dangerous precedent, with France set to follow suit.
The bill, which also draw fire from human rights group Amnesty International, will not enter force for weeks and may have to be re-examined, if early elections are called.
"We're the first country to spring the locks that have made a good number of women slaves, and we hope to be followed by France, Switzerland, Italy, and the Netherlands; countries that think," said liberal deputy Denis Ducarme.
In the lower house of the federal Parliament on Thursday night, 136 deputies supported a nationwide ban on clothes or veils that do not allow the wearer to be fully identified, including the full-face niqab and burqa.
There were two abstentions. No one voted against.
The ban will be imposed in streets, public gardens and sports grounds or buildings "meant for public use or to provide services" to the public, according to the text of the bill.
People who ignore it could face a fine of € 15-25 ($ 20-34) and/or a jail sentence of up to seven days.
All governing parties and the opposition agreed on the move -- most for security reasons linked to the fact that people cannot be recognised while wearing the clothing.
In Le Soir newspaper, Michael Privot, an Islamic scholar, said Belgium "now joins Iran and Saudi Arabia in that exclusive but unenviable rare club of countries to impose a dress code in the public domain."
He said the three cite "the protection of dignity, or even the freedom, of women to justify the unjustifiable: the restriction of individual freedoms of some of our citizens."
The vice-president of the Muslim Executive of Belgium, Isabelle Praile, warned the vote could set a dangerous precedent and pave the way for a crackdown on other symbols of religious expression such as Sikh turbans.
"Given the acute crisis which our government is facing, this move to kill our liberties, which will deprive dozens of women of their fundamental rights, is totally over the top and driven by ideology," she said on Friday.
Amnesty called on the upper house to review the legislation, adding it believed the move was in breach of Belgium's obligations under international human rights law.
"A complete ban on the covering of the face would violate the rights to freedom of expression and religion of those women who wear the burqa or the niqab," said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty's expert on discrimination in Europe.
"The Belgian move to ban full face veils, the first in Europe, sets a dangerous precedent," he warned.
"This law disturbs me," added Bruno Tuybens, a Flemish Socialist lawmaker who abstained from the vote.
"I believe in freedom of expression and I don't think it should be restricted unless it's in very exceptional circumstances."
"There is no link at all between crime and wearing the burqa or niqab."
Controversy has also raged elsewhere in Europe over the wearing of Muslim veils and other religious garments in state or public institutions.
France will jail and impose huge fines on anyone who forces a Muslim woman to wear a full-face veil, according to a leaked version of a proposed law revealed Friday.
While women will face only a € 150 penalty if they choose to don a burqa or a niqab, President Nicolas Sarkozy wants to slap one-year prison terms and € 15,000 fines on those who make others wear them.
A final draft of the legislation is set to be approved by the French cabinet on May 19 and the National Assembly will begin debate on the bill in July.
Staunchly secular France passed a law in 2004 banning the wearing of headscarves or any other "conspicuous" religious symbols in state schools.