Belgium has moved to the forefront of a campaign to restrict the wearing of the Muslim veil by women when a key vote left it on track to become the first European country to ban the burqa and niqab in public.

The home affairs committee of the Brussels federal Parliament voted unanimously to ban the partial or total covering of faces in public places.

“I am proud that Belgium would be the first country in Europe which dares to legislate on this sensitive matter,” said the centre-right MP Denis Ducarme.

Daniel Bacquelaine, liberal MP who proposed the bill, said: “We cannot allow someone to claim the right to look at others without being seen. It is necessary that the law forbids the wearing of clothes that totally mask and enclose an individual. Wearing the burqa in public is not compatible with an open, liberal, tolerant society.” The Belgian move came as neighbouring France and the Netherlands continued to grapple with the idea of imposing similar restrictions.

The Canadian province of Quebec last week introduced parliamentary measures to proscribe facial covering in public service employment — a move that enjoyed overwhelming public support in Canada.

Support for the ban in Belgium transcended party lines, ranging from the Greens to the far right, and also resulted in a rare show of unity between the linguistically divided halves of the country.

The full support of the home affairs committee means Parliament is likely to vote for the curbs in mid-April, with a ban in force by the summer.

Under the proposals a fine or punishment of up to seven days in prison would be imposed for wearing the full-body burqa or face-masking niqab. The bill, to be debated next month, states that anyone in a public place “with face covered or disguised in whole or in part to the extent that she cannot be identified” is liable to incur the penalties.

While Wednesday's vote paved the way for the first nationwide ban on the veil in Europe, local authorities in Belgium already have the power to ban both in public places.

Of the 5,00,000 Muslims living in Belgium — with big populations in Brussels and Antwerp — very few women wear the full veil, and there has been little debate about the need to ban it.

While Mr. Bacquelaine admitted there was little problem with full facial covering among Muslims in Belgium, he argued for a pre-emptive move, saying: “We have to act as of today to avoid [its] development.” Rather than being about the burqa and the niqab, the bigger debate in Belgium — as elsewhere in Europe — is about the less severe headscarf, with Muslim parents pressing for schools to allow their daughters to cover their heads and often opting to send them to private schools tolerant of the practice.

The Belgian move is similar to other campaigns in Europe.

Following a heavy regional elections trouncing last week, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France called for a burqa ban. “The all-body veil is contrary to the dignity of women,” he said. “The answer is to ban it. The government will introduce a bill to ban it that conforms to the principles of our laws.” — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2010

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