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4.26.2010 Belgium edges closer to veil ban

By Dominic Hughes

Belgium is on the path to becoming the first country in Europe to ban full-face veils worn by some Muslim women.

On a warm, sunny morning the Rue de Brabant just north of the centre of Brussels is busy with shoppers.

This city, known as the capital of Europe, is a multicultural melting pot and this part of town reflects that well.

It is particularly popular with the sizeable Moroccan and Turkish communities which, in turn, make up the bulk of Belgium's half-a-million or so Muslim residents.

But now, with the Belgian parliament due to debate legislation proposing a ban, some are asking how far multiculturalism should go.

The new law, which enjoys cross party support, would outlaw clothing that obscures your identity - and that would include full face Islamic veils like the niqab or burka.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Green Party supports the measure.

Some have backed the legislation on the grounds of security, others that full face veils are a symbol of the oppression of women.

'Freedom to choose'

But Green MP Stefaan van Hecke tells me there is a more fundamental argument, to do with culture.

"If you want good communication between all communities, and there are a lot in Brussels, it's important that we see each other when we speak to each other. I think it's very important to social contact."

Not far from the parliament, in a small park, I meet Selma.

She is 22 and three years ago she converted to Islam. Now she wears a full-face niqab.

She is covered from head to foot, with just a small slit for her eyes. Even her hands are gloved.

If the new law is approved she could be fined or even arrested for dressing like this. And Selma says that is a threat to her rights.

"You have to realise that the niqab is a personal choice, at least in my particular case," she says.

"Everyone should be free to express themselves the way they want, according to their conviction and religion, without having to abide by a law. But I'd be disappointed if in Europe we would not be free to do what we want."

But in Belgium women like Selma are rare - she is one of perhaps only 30 women who wear full-face veils.

For the vast majority of Belgian Muslims, niqabs or burkas play no part in their tradition.

And on the streets of Brussels, opinion was divided as to whether this kind of law was actually needed. Some people we spoke to said they found women in full-face veils offensive or threatening. Others felt a law was the wrong way to go about things.

Culture clash

In fact laws like this one are already in place in a number of Belgian cities. This new legislation would apply to the whole country.

Other European nations - the French, Danes and Dutch for example - have considered similar laws, but Belgium would be the first European state to bring in such a ban.

And that has the vice-president of the Muslim Executive of Belgium, Isabelle Praile, worried about the precedent the country might be setting.

"It's an attack on democracy," she says.

"I find it a form of suppression against which I am opposed. If women really are being forced to wear the full veil then by forbidding them to go out in public you will end up locking them up even more in their houses."

This is a clash of cultures and values, each side claiming they are protecting the rights of others.

But it will be a debate watched carefully by other European countries, weighing up whether they could follow Belgium's lead.