A law banning the public wearing of Islamic burqas and veils has come into force in Belgium.
After France, Belgium is the second European state to enforce such a prohibition. Under the Belgian law, rule-breakers face a fine of 137.50 euros (about $200) and up to seven days in prison.
The law was passed almost unanimously in the Belgian parliament in April 2010 on the grounds that people who obscured their faces could not be identified by police and posed a security risk. Other MPs supported the law on the belief that such clothing represented the oppression of women.
Already, the statute has been attacked as discriminatory against Muslims. Two veiled Belgian women have introduced a challenge to the law in the courts.
We consider the law a disproportionate intrusion into fundamental rights such as the freedom of religion and expression, Ines Wouters, the lawyer representing the two women, told the newspaper La Libre.
Agence France Presse reported that Wouters has taken her challenge to Belgium's constitutional court, where she will ask for the law to be suspended.
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Wouters told Deutsche Presse-Agentur: My clients are far from being the only ones. This is really a head-on attack on the Muslim world.
The Green Party of Belgium also opposed the ban.
Eva Brems, a party member told Deutsche Welle: “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.”
She added: “I am convinced it is a violation of human rights. I feel I am supported in this opinion by most of the human rights community. I hope it will be challenged and annulled.
However, according to reports, very few Muslim women living in Belgium and France (both of which have large Islamic populations) actually wear veils in public.
Belgium’s Muslim population is estimated at between 450,000 to 500,000 out of a total population of about 10-million. Half of them are of Moroccan origin, with another 120,000 from Turkey.