Burqa wearers
Burqa wearersIsrael news photo: file

A parliamentary committee in Belgium voted on Wednesday to ban the wearing of face-covering veils in public, and the full House of Representatives is expected to vote on the bill in late April. The Interior Affairs Committee, in which all major parties are represented, was unanimous in its decision.

"We cannot allow someone to claim the right to look at others without being seen," MP Daniel Bacquelaine of the French-speaking MR liberal-values party told the Associated Press. "It is necessary that the law forbids the wearing of clothes that totally mask and encloses an individual.”

Similar legislation is being mulled in France as well and has been supported by President Nicolas Sarkozy. On Tuesday, however, France's Council of State warned that the prohibition risked being found unconstitutional. The Belgian legislation could also be challenged in the European Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg.

Last November, Swiss citizens voted to ban minarets on mosques.

Only 'a couple of dozen' wearers

The Belgian legislation specifically targets the burqa and the niqab, both of which which cover the face, although these are not commonly seen in Belgium. "We have to act as of today to avoid (its) development," Bacquelaine said. "Wearing the burqa in public is not compatible with an open, liberal, tolerant society," he said.

There are about 500,000 Muslims in Belgium. The Belgian Muslim Council says only “a couple of dozen” wear full-face veils. Several districts of Belgium have already banned the burqa in public places.

Supporters of the ban say that face-covering garb poses security problems and violates women's civil rights. Opponents like Isabelle Praile, the Vice President of the Muslim Executive of Belgium, said it could set a dangerous precedent. "Today it's the full-face veil, tomorrow the veil, the day after it will be Sikh turbans and then perhaps it will be mini-skirts," she told the AFP news agency.