Women who flout the ban will face up to seven days in jail or a fine of up to 25 euros
David Charter, Brussels
With Belgium on course to become the first EU country to ban the burqa, the Muslim tradition of covering women’s faces seems destined to end up in a European court battle pitting individual rights against society’s values.
MPs on Belgium’s home affairs committee have unanimously approved a ban on garments concealing the whole face or making it unrecognisable, setting up a vote in Parliament on April 22 that seems certain to pass given the cross-party consensus.
This would prohibit the full body burqa or face-covering niqab being worn in streets, public gardens, sports grounds and buildings “meant for public use or to provide services” to the public, according to draft Bill.
Women who flout the ban will face up to seven days in jail or a fine of betweem €15 and €25. Headscarves are not affected.
Belgian politicians rarely agree on anything but common ground has been reached on the veil amid a growing atmosphere of concern at Islamic extremism in the country. A group of Muslims are currently involved there in a high-profile trial for allegedly recruiting jihadi fighters for Afghanistan, where the Government has recently agreed to extend its mission as part of the Nato force.
So while President Sarkozy is encountering legal obstacles to his own plans to outlaw the face-covering niqab, Belgium seems likely to beat France to bring in the first national ban in Europe.
It is the latest in a series of moves to curtail the manifestations of Islam after the referendum in Switzerland to ban minarets and President Sarkozy’s declaration last year that clothing that concealed the face was “not welcome” in France. Last week he repeated his intention to ban it but the French Council of State, the nation’s highest administrative body, has warned that a prohibition on full-body Islamic veils in public risked being deemed unconstitutional.
Neither Germany nor Britain is keen on veil bans, despite some popular pressure. Catholic countries seem the most keen on prohibition, with Italy vowing to follow any successful move in France. Four draft bills are already circulating in Italian parliamentary committees.
“I completely agree with the French initiative, which I think will push other European countries and hence also Italy, to enact laws on this issue,” said the Equal Opportunities Minister Mara Carfagna this year.
“This is about a sacrosanct battle to defend the dignity and rights of immigrant women. A law is being studied that would ban the use of a burqa and niqab, which are not religious symbols — that is not us saying it, but the top religious authorities of the Islamic world, like the imams of Cairo and Paris.”
Debate has also raged in mainly Protestant Holland for several years but not so far translated into a national law.
The Freedom Party of the anti-Islamist MP Geert Wilders only contested two councils in last month’s Dutch regional elections and scored a headline-grabbing win in the city of Almere, coming second in The Hague. But the party has been shut out of coalition government in both cities because it will not compromise on its call to ban headscarves in public buildings and no other main party will accept the demand.
Elsewhere in Europe, local authorities in Denmark have the right to demand that public servants such as teachers and social workers do not hide their faces at work, while defendants are not permitted to cover up in court.
Article Nine of the European Convention on Human Rights on religion gives the “freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance”.
Nonetheless, this is tempered by limitations “as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others”.
The Charter of Fundamental Rights included in the Lisbon treaty, however, contains no such caveat and simply declares the right “to manifest religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance”. It also prohibits discrimination “on any ground such as sex, race, colour, ethnic or social origin, genetic features, language, religion or belief, political or any other opinion, membership of a national minority, property, birth, disability, age or sexual orientation”.
It adds: “The European Union shall respect cultural, religious and linguistic diversity.”
These are the possible grounds for the coming court showdown. With a ban in Belgium likely to come into force this summer, Isabelle Praile, vice-president of the Muslim Executive of Belgium, signalled that a legal challenge was likely.
“Today it is the full-face veil, tomorrow the veil, the day after it will be Sikh turbans and then perhaps it will be mini skirts,” she said. “The wearing of a full-face veil is part of the individual freedoms” protected by international rights laws.