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Culture clash

July 23, 2011

A new law banning the burqa comes into force in Belgium on Saturday. The law has been approved with overwhelming support by both houses of parliament, a rare display of unity in this otherwise divided nation.

three women wearing the burqa
Although present, the burqa remains very rare in BelgiumImage: picture alliance / dpa

Belgium is now the second country in the European Union after France to implement a burqa ban. The law has found unanimous support among all the political parties, a coup in this normally divided nation.

Peter DeDecker from the Flemish separatist party, NVA, believes that the burqa ban will help preserve fundamental Western values.

"I think we have to defend our fundamental principles of the enlightenment - men and woman are equal in all aspects," DeDecker told Deutsche Welle. "And for also safety reasons - you don't know who's behind that textile. They can carry anything with them. People feel unsafe."

As of Saturday, any woman wearing the face-covering burqa or niqab in public risks a fine of 137 euros ($197) or up to seven days in jail.

Small minority

There are only 270 women who wear the veil in Belgium, which has a Muslim population of 400,000. Mustafa Kastit, an imam at the main mosque in Brussels, questions whether its makes sense to legislate against such a rare practice.

"You can go walk in our Muslim neighborhoods here and hardly see any women wearing a niqab," Kastit told Deutsche Welle. "It's so rare here. So is it really worth legislating against them?"

View of Belgian parliament in session
The ban enjoys widespread support within the Belgian parliamentImage: AP

Kastit worries that the law could alienate Muslims who already feel like they are being singled out on religious grounds.

"It risks stigmatizing the Muslim community even more, and it risks heightening this climate of fear, of Islamophobia that we see spreading across Europe and in all Western civilizations," he said.


Eva Brems, a member of the Green Party, was the only parliamentarian who voted against the burqa ban. She views the law as the consequence of growing multicultural tension.

"It's not a matter of increased Islamophobia, it's about a tension in society with Islam and multiculturalism in general that tries to find a way to manifest itself and people feel that they should be allowed to be intolerant vis-à-vis a more radical Islam," Brems told Deutsche Welle.

Brems believes that the ban is a clear violation of human rights and hopes it will be overturned.

"I am convinced it is a violation of human rights," Brems said. "I feel I am supported in this opinion by most of the human rights community. I hope it will be challenged and annulled."

But even if there is a legal challenge here, the trend is spreading across Europe. A burqa ban is now being prepared in the Netherlands and similar legislation is in the pipeline in Italy and Spain.

Author: Vanessa Mock, Brussels / sk
Editor: Andreas Illmer