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Belgian lawmakers voted overwhelmingly on Thursday to ban wearing the Islamic burqa or niqab in public. Other European countries might follow suit.

In the lower house of the Belgian federal parliament, 136 deputies voted for a nationwide ban. There were no abstentions, and no one voted against the bill. The ban will be imposed in all public spaces.

Violators of the new law risk a fine of 15 to 25 euros and/or a prison sentence of one to seven days. All governing and opposition parties agreed on the law, based on the argument that women wearing burqas cannot be identified. The upper house of parliament has two weeks to object to the decision.

The move was condemned by Muslim and Catholic leaders, and by human rights group Amnesty International.

A similar ban is being considered in other countries, including Denmark and France. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has already ordered legislation paving the way for a ban on the full Islamic veil.

In the Netherlands, a burqa ban is one of the main planks of Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party manifesto for next month’s general election. Wilders claims that Islamic veils are a sign of a “backward culture” in which women are considered inferior to men, in violation of Dutch law.

Imam Fawaz Jneid of the al-Sunna mosque in The Hague says, “This isn’t about the niqab or the headscarf. The cause is the fear of the arrival of Islam in Europe. They’re trying to stop this in a roundabout way.”

Chaista Khan was born in the Netherlands and wears a burqa. She said she will leave the country if a burqa ban is introduced. “It’s not easy. This is the country in which we were born, in which we were raised, so this is a last option. I love Holland as well.”

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A Muslim mathematics teacher in a municipal school in Belgium won her legal battle to wear a veil in class on Thursday when an appeals court overturned a lower court decision.

The teacher, whose identity was not given in Belgian news reports, had been banned by school officials last September from wearing a veil while teaching — even though she had done so for more than two years.

Her initial attempt to challenge the ban failed when a court in the French-speaking industrial city of Charleroi sided with the school, citing a decree on the “neutrality” of the national francophone school system.

But an appeal court in Mons overturned that ruling, on the grounds that the school in question was funded by Charleroi city hall, rather than by the national system, and that the decree therefore did not apply

“The court recalled that a precise text is needed for a derogation to the principle of freedom of expression, which is something the city of Charleroi had not done,” the teacher’s lawyer Jean-Claude Derzelle told RTBF radio.

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A veiled woman, Fatima Zibouh, is now on the board of the Center for Equal Opportunities and Opposition to Racism (CGKR). She was nominated by Ecolo (Greens) as a replacement.

Zibouh holds a diplomat for Political Science from the Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB) and succeeds Zakia Khattabi, who has become a community senator. Zibouh has been a researchers for the Centre for Ethnic and Migration Studies (CEDEM) at the Universtiy of Leuven since 2007. “Fatima Zibouh was selected on the basis of her abilities,” explained the party spokesperson, who said that no other considerations influenced the choice.

Senator Alain Destexhe (MR) announced he regrets Ecolo’s decision of a veiled woman. According to him, such a decision can’t be reconciled with the neutrality requirements of a public service and the Greens are thereby contributing to strengthening religious elements in the public sphere.

Polemicist Claude Demelenne accused her of having links to radical Muslims.

Fatima Zibouh responded in surprise to the reactions which followed her appointment. “My choice of clothing has absolutely nothing to do with my appointment,” Zibouh says on the parlemento.com website.

“I don’t know if everybody understands that the demographic configuration in Belgium and Brussels has changed. It’s simply normal that people who ‘themselves are part of the diversity’ should be able to reach certain levels.”

She also denies that she signed a petition that asked to remove Hamas from the list of terrorist organization, as Demelenne accused her of doing. Also the allegation that she is part of a racial Muslim organization is taken out of thin air. “I’m not a member of a structured Muslim organization, it’s more a think-tank which attempts to build bridges with non-Muslims. I have enough of the climate of insinuations in which it’s assumed that every Muslim organization is a sleeper terrorism cell,” she concludes.

The parliamentary fraction leader of Ecolo, Murier Gerkens, earlier condemned the statements made about Zibouh. She repeated that her party nominated Zibouh on the basis of her capabilities and nothing else.

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