The Belgian House of Representatives [official website, in French] on Thursday voted 136-0 to approve a bill that would ban the Islamic burqa [JURIST news archive] and other full face veils in public. The proposed legislation [materials, in French] applies to areas "accessible to the public" or areas meant for "public use or to provide public services." Violators could face a penalty of up to seven days in jail or a fine of 15 to 25 euros. Proponents argue that the legislation is necessary both as a security measure and to prevent women from being forced to wear the garments. Opponents have said that the bill restricts freedom of expression. The measure must now go before the Senate [official website, in French]. If approved, Belgium would become the first European nation to impose a nationwide restriction on traditional face-covering veils.
France, which has Europe's largest Muslim population, has also been pressing for a ban on the burqa. Last week, a spokesperson for French President Nicolas Sarkozy [official website, in French; BBC profile] said that the president is in favor of a complete public ban on the burqa and other full face veils and will be submitting a bill to parliament in May. Last month, the French Council of State advised the French government against a complete ban [JURIST report] on full Islamic veils because it risks violating the French Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights. France already has a partial ban that prevents public officials from wearing veils while operating in their official capacity and also prohibits veils in public schools. Also last month, lawmakers in Quebec introduced a bill [Star report] that would ban women from wearing full face veils from public services, which garnered support from members of the Muslim Canadian Congress who argue that the law would not violate human rights [JURIST comment] and would promote the ideals of a free and democratic society.