Belgium implemented a law on Saturday banning women from wearing the Islamic burqa in public. The measure was initially passed by the Belgian Federal Parliament in April 2010 by a vote of 136-1. Under the new legislation, any woman who wears a burqa in public faces the possibility of a fine or up to seven days in jail [ABNA report]. Opponents of the controversial law allege that such a ban is discriminatory against Muslims and that a ban violates human rights. The Council of Europe [official website] commissioner of human rights Thomas Hammarberg [backgrounder] denounced the legislation [JURIST report] in a written comment [text] stating "In fact, the banning may run counter to European human rights standards, in particular the right to respect for one's private life and personal identity." A court challenge has been launched by two women who wear burqas charging that the measure is a violation of religious freedom.
Belgium is not the first EU country to enact legislation banning the wearing of full face veils in public. In April, France enacted [JURIST report] a law similar to that of Belgium after its Constitutional Court [official website, in French] ruled the legislation was constitutional [JURIST report]. Under the French law, violators wearing a face covering may be fined up to 150 euros and/or required to attend citizenship classes. In contrast, anyone convicted of forcing a woman to cover her face may be fined up to 30,000 euro and jailed for one year [AFP report, in French], and the penalties double if that woman is a minor. The French ban is not exclusive to the burqa, prohibiting any covering of the face in a public place [Metro report].