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Women wearing full veils can be jailed in Belgium, EU court affirms

The European Court of Human Rights upheld Belgium’s contentious ban on partial and full-face veils worn by Muslim women on Tuesday.

by Milena Mikael-Debass
Jul 11 2017, 10:30am

Publicly covering your face in Belgium could get you fined or put in jail for up to seven days, according to the European Union’s top human rights’ court.

The European Court of Human Rights, which considers cases that may undermine Europeans’ civil and political rights, upheld Belgium’s contentious ban on partial and full-face veils worn by Muslim women on Tuesday. In their decision, seven judges on the court unanimously found the ban “justifiable in principle” because Belgium was trying to “respond to a practice that it considered to be incompatible” with social communication and human relations.

In 2014, the court upheld France’s burqa ban on similar grounds.

Claiming their right to religious freedom, two Belgian women and a Moroccan woman living in Belgium brought the suit against the ban. All three women identify as Muslim and wore the niqab before the ban went into effect. After the ban, one removed her veil to avoid fines and jail while another decided to remain mostly at home. They can appeal the ruling within three months.

While one-piece garments like the niqab and burqa come in different styles, they all fully cover the body and face, including the eyes. When Belgium adopted its ban in 2011, the nation became the second in the European Union to impose criminal penalties for Islamic women’s attire. Members of the country’s parliament argued for it as a security measure that would allow law enforcement to identify people. The discussions also characterized the veil as a tool of oppression.

While Belgium is a predominantly Catholic country, an estimated 5.9 percent of the population is Muslim. Although no reliable statistics exist on how many women wear full-face veils, opponents of the ban estimate only a small minority do, which doesn’t address the security concerns claimed by lawmakers.

Facing rising fears of Islamic militancy, Europe has increasingly regulated face veils over the past few years. The new laws have created a powder keg of debate on secularism, Islamophobia, and national security.

  • In May, Austria’s parliament approved a niqab and burqa ban in public which goes into effect October.
  • In April, Germany’s lower house of parliament approved a draft law preventing civil servants from wearing face veils while at work.
  • The Netherlands approved a ban on all face coverings, including ski-masks, in some public spaces. Passed in November 2016, the bill still needs Senate approval.
  • In September 2016, Bulgaria banned wearing burqas in public, citing security reasons after a string of terrorist attacks.
  • A southern Swiss state enforced a burqa ban in July 2016 carrying a fine of up to $10,500.
  • In 2010, France made it illegal to cover your face in public with anything including hoods.

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