A parliamentary committee unanimously voted Wednesday to ban the wearing of face-covering veils in public, a major step in the legislative process that could make Belgium the first European country to impose such a religious prohibition.
The full House of Representatives is expected to vote on the issue late April.
The Interior Affairs Committee representing all major parties was unanimous Wednesday in backing the bill. The six parliamentarians from the MR french-speaking liberal party said the principle of "recognize to know" trumped other considerations in the issue.
"We cannot allow someone to claim the right to look at others without being seen," said Daniel Bacquelaine, who proposed the bill. "It is necessary that the law forbids the wearing of clothes that totally mask and encloses an individual," he said, adding he was not targeting the classic headscarf worn by many Muslim women.
The parliamentarians are specifically targeting the body-covering burqa and face-veiling niqab, which are still very rare features in Belgian public life. "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.
In Belgium, the proponents of the ban argue that such all-covering garb poses security issues as well as threatens democratic values. Some feared, however, that the bill would not stand a legal challenge.
In France on Tuesday, the Council of State, the nation's highest administrative body, warned that a prohibition on full-body Islamic veils in public risked being found unconstitutional. President Nicolas Sarkozy said last year that such clothing was "not welcome" in France.
Such a ban could also be challenged at the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights.