Bulgaria's parliament has voted to ban the wearing of face-covering veils in public after similar measures were adopted in some western European countries. Human rights groups have called the move racist and xenophobic.
Under the "burqa ban" legislation, clothing that hides the face may not be worn in government offices, schools, cultural institutions and places of public recreation.
Those who don't comply with the new law face fines of up to 1,500 levs ($860/765 euros) as well as suspension of social benefits.
The nationalist Patriotic Front coalition had pushed strongly for the bill, while the ethnic Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms boycotted the vote. It said the ban would only help fuel ethnic and religious intolerance. Bulgaria's ruling center-right GERB party denied the bill had anything to do with religion, saying its aim was to boost national security and improve the quality of video surveillance.
"The law is not directed against religious communities and is not repressive," said senior GERB lawmaker Krasimir Velchev. "We made a very good law for the safety of our children."
Bulgaria's long-established Muslim community makes up around 13 percent of the population of 7.2 million. The niqab full-face veils or head-to-toe burqas typically associated with ultra-conservative Muslim communities are rarely seen in the Black Sea state. Instead, most Muslim women in Bulgaria usually opt for a simple scarf to cover their hair.
Amnesty: Ban violates rights
Human rights organization Amnesty International on Friday said the ban violated Bulgarian women's rights to freedom of expression and religion. The group's Europe director, John Dalhuisen, said the law was part of a disturbing trend of intolerance, xenophobia and racism in the country.
"Legitimate security concerns can be met with targeted restrictions on the complete covering of the face in well-defined high risk locations and not through a blanket discriminatory ban such as this," he said. "Women in Bulgaria should be free to dress as they please."
Full-face veils have already been banned in a number of Bulgarian towns. Similar measures have also been adopted in western European countries like France, the Netherlands and Belgium, while Switzerland's lower house this week approved a draft bill on a nationwide ban.
While no such law exists in neighboring Germany, the issue has also been hotly debated there. A recent poll found that three-quarters of Germans would like to see a ban on the full body veil in public places. A majority of Britons would also support the step, according to a survey published earlier this month.
nm/cmk (AFP, Reuters)