Belgium's Burqa Ban

Some days, I wonder if the United States could put a ban on pantyhose. The darn things rip so often, and it's mind boggling why they are still culturally expected in the workplace.

On a more serious note, last summer, we explored women's clothing issues like burkinis and nude beaches in France, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy's desire to ban burqas has long made news.

Just to the north of France, though, the nation of Belgium will probably beat Sarkozy to the punch as it paved the way yesterday to bar women from wearing veiled clothing. From the avoid-stock-images department, BBC television coverage shows (presumably Muslim) women who are wearing head-scarfs when the law concerns clothing that conceals the face. Yes, even television reporters should be precise.

Other coverage is pretty basic as most news outlets consider the international political ramifications. If France and the Netherlands have considered this for a while, will Belgium create a tipping point for others to follow suit? On Tuesday, though, France's top administrative body ruled that a complete ban would be unconstitutional. Here's how The New York Times frames the Belgium decision.

It came in the midst of debates in France and the Netherlands over the wearing of head scarves or veils, and followed a referendum vote in Switzerland against building minarets.

Analysts noted that in Belgium, where the sight of women wearing burqas is relatively rare, the measure would have a limited practical impact, though it could prove politically symbolic.

"This is a very strong signal that is being sent to Islamists," the French-speaking liberal deputy Denis Ducarme said, adding that he was "proud that Belgium would be the first country in Europe which dares to legislate on this sensitive matter."

The story is not bad but it lacks some basic details. For example, if the law passed, what would be the penalty for wearing a burqa? What percentage of Belgium is Muslim? Is the Muslim population growing? Did the decision come after a long battle, or did it get passed pretty easily? Are lawmakers anticipating court challenges? Why does Belgium want to send a strong signal to Islamists?

Also, the story could include a short explanation of who wears the facial veil (obviously not all Muslim women do, so are there particular traditions that promote the practice?) and why (modesty, honor, respect, etc.). Perhaps educated readers will know this by now, but a little summary of why it's significant religiously would help readers understand the tension between religion and the law a bit better.

While the Times downplayed the impact of the ban on the country, the Telegraph suggests the ban comes during other related news.

The ban comes amid controversy over the wearing of Muslim religious symbols in public places and as a high-profile trial of nine alleged al-Queda terrorists takes place in Brussels.

Belgium has been alarmed by the case of Malika El Aroud, a veiled Islamist radical and Belgian national, charged with leading the recruitment of young Brussels Muslims for suicide bombing missions. She was required to remove her burka in court when her trial opened earlier this month.

National debate has also raged over a protracted legal battle by Muslim mathematics teacher who demanded the right to wear a veil while teaching in her classroom.

She has been given until the middle of next week to return, unveiled, to her Charleroi school or to lose her job.

There appears to be a discrepancy between the reports over whether the math teacher will be able to return to school without a veil (says the Telegraph) or with a simple veil (says the Times). Looks like the Times wins? Still, you'd think the Times would include a mention of the terrorist trial if it's making an impact on the country's view of Islam.

The stories include quotes that refer to religious freedom, but it doesn't play a very prominent role. Here are some reactions from AFP on the religious freedom issue.

The vice-president of the Muslim Executive of Belgium, Isabelle Praile, warned that the move could set a dangerous precedent.

"Today it's the full-face veil, tomorrow the veil, the day after it will be Sikh turbans and then perhaps it will be mini skirts," she said.

"The wearing of a full-face veil is part of the individual freedoms" protected by Belgian, European and international rights laws, she said.

The Catholic bishop -- Belgium is traditionally Catholic -- in the southern town of Tournai, Guy Harpigny, said: "Does the state really have the right to regulate the symbols of personal beliefs?"

Belgium's recent move allows reporters to explore issues of human rights, immigration, integration, national security, treatment of women, and so forth. In covering these debates, though, religious freedom issues should not get downplayed.

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