Belgium's lower house of parliament on Thursday voted in favor of draft legislation banning certain veils sometimes worn by Muslims. Experts say Belgium could become the first European country to ban the veils.
Lawmakers in Belgium's Chamber of Deputies voted almost unanimously to ban face veils. Until recently, analysts say, approval in the Belgium Senate seemed assured. But Christian Democrats and Liberals in the upper house on Thursday questioned the phrasing of the law, throwing quick approval into doubt.
If approved, the measure would ban all clothing that partially or completely covers the face. Those who violate the ban would be fined between about $20 or jailed. If the law passes, Belgium would be the first European Union country to ban the face veil.
Critics of the ban say it violates freedom of expression and unfairly targets Belgium's Muslim community.
The human rights group Amnesty International swiftly denounced the vote. John Dalhuisen is an Amnesty expert on European affairs.
"In our view, it's certainly a violation of a great many of Belgium's international obligations - the U.N. convention [on human rights] and the European Court of Human Rights," said John Dalhuisen.
Supporters of the ban say it reinforces women's right. They add that it is a critical security measure that will prevent Muslim radicals from hiding behind veils.
France is contemplating a similar ban.
Amnesty International's John Dalhuisen says Europe is sending a very negative message to its Muslim communities.
"Clearly, it's not a welcoming message," he said. "It's an attempt by certain parts of the population, certain political parties, to draw a line in the sand, as it were, and say, 'Beyond this point, we shan't be accepting your cultural or religious practices.'"
In Belgium, as in France, many Muslims do not wear the face veil. But the issue has divided the Muslim community. Many women's rights advocates approve a ban. But other say Muslims are being unfairly singled out.