Despite being in the grip of an acute political crisis that threatens its very existence as a state, Belgium became the first state in Europe to ban the burqa in public places.

The vote on the burqa became a major diversion from the country's monumental woes and Belgium's Lower House of Parliament on Thursday banned it in public. However, the bill has to be passed by the Senate to become law and delays are being foreseen.

Belgium is currently without a government, Prime Minister Yves Leterme and his Cabinet having resigned over linguistic differences and the country is mired in a deep identity crisis, with both French and Flemish speakers refusing to compromise on the status of the largely French-speaking capital which falls within a Flemish-dominated area. Early elections are likely to be held in the coming months.

Women wearing the burqa in public could face fines of up to €150. Amnesty International and other human rights organisations have spoken out against the bill saying it violates individual liberties. The country's Muslim population which accounts for just 2.7 per cent of the total (only about 100 women wear the niqab) described the law as being “rooted in prejudice”.

But Daniel Bacquelaine, a Liberal who authored the bill, said the burqa is incompatible with basic security as everyone in public must be recognisable. It also clashes with the principles of an emancipated society that respects the rights of all, he said.

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