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A woman wearing a 'Niqab' veil participates in a protest on February 6, 2010 in Tours, central France, after a panel of French lawmakers recommended a ban on the face-covering veil in all schools, hospitals, public transport and government offices. According to the interior ministry, only around 1,900 women wear the burqa in France, which is home to Europe's biggest Muslim minority.
In Belgium, swift and unanimous parliamentary approval is expected later this month on a proposed ban on some headgear worn by Muslim women. The new measure would make it illegal to wear the burqa, a full-body veil, or a niqab, which only leaves the eyes visible, in public.
The headgear worn by Muslim women living in Western society has long been an issue in Europe.
France and Germany, each with several million Muslim inhabitants, often have been at the center of that debate. But it's Belgium, with its small Muslim population of slightly more than 600,000, that will soon make wearing the "wrong" kind of headgear a crime.
In Belgium, French-speaking and Dutch-speaking politicians sometimes find it so hard to cooperate that the country has more than once gone without a working government for months at a time.
So it's remarkable that any legislation could anticipate the swift and unanimous parliamentary approval expected at the end of April for the proposed burqa ban, which has lawmakers across the political spectrum seeing eye to eye.
They think it's fair to demand that everyone in Belgium should be able to see eye to eye, explains the measure's sponsor, Liberal Party head Daniel Bacquelaine.
"If we want to live together in a free society, we need to recognize each other," he says.
Bacquelaine rejects accusations that the bill is anti-Islamic. On the contrary, he says, it will help Muslims integrate into society.
He argues that banning the burqa, a head-to-toe covering, and the niqab, a scarf that leaves only the eyes visible, will benefit the women themselves, even though they'd be subject to a fine or jail time for covering their faces. Under discussion are penalties of up to seven days in jail or fines of up to 25 euros.
"To forbid the veil as a covering is to give [Muslim women] more freedom. I'm proud Belgium is the first country to do that," Bacquelaine says.
Ban Would Stoke 'Islamophobia'
Yasmina Akhandaf, a Muslim feminist, is anything but proud of that.
"As a Belgian I am embarrassed about my country, and as a Muslim woman I am afraid of my Belgian politicians, because those are the people that I voted on, that should talk about our interests," she says.
Born and raised in Antwerp — home to a large Muslim population — Akhandaf helped found a group whose name translates as "Boss Over One's Own Head." It has launched a lawsuit against the city's ban on wearing any religious headgear in public schools or government jobs.
As for the burqa, Akhandaf says because there are so few women in Belgium who do cover their faces, she believes the law is more provocative than practical.
"It is more about creating some sort of atmosphere. You create more Islamophobia. As a politician, as a public servant, you are supposed to bring people together, not separate them more," she says.
Those separations are already clear in some parts of Belgium.
The Molenbeek neighborhood of Brussels is majority Muslim. Many shop signs are in Arabic, as are the music wafting from doors and the language of the customers.
Headscarves are ubiquitous in the area, but on a recent day there is not a burqa to be seen for blocks and blocks. Pedestrians willing to talk about the touchy situation are almost as scarce.
A Population Divided
Marjam Coltek, a medical student wearing a headscarf, is one of the few not shy about her opinions.
Belgian by birth, Coltek says while she wouldn't wear a burqa, it should be her choice. No one is telling followers of the Dalai Lama what to wear in Belgium, she points out.
But on a side street in Molenbeek where she has lived for 30 years, Georgette Thiran laments the huge influx of foreigners to her neighborhood, and says the full veil is not welcome there either.
"It's not Belgian — it's not normal," she says. "Why do they come to Belgium then?"
Akhandaf, the Muslim feminist, has a different question. She doesn't argue with the idea that under those veils may be some women who are being oppressed by conservative Islamic traditions. But if the Belgian government truly wants to liberate them, she wonders, why pass a law that locks them up — in jail if they defy the coming burqa ban, or in their homes if they obey it? Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.