The Belgian lower house of parliament on Thursday approved a draft law to ban wearing the full Islamic face veil in public, a move that could make Belgium the first country to make the practice a criminal offense.
The measure was overwhelmingly backed by 136 lawmakers with just two abstentions.
The bill, which would ban all clothing that covers or partially covers the face, could become law in the coming months as the upper house, or Senate, is not expected to block it.
However, the collapse of the government last week and the prospect of an imminent election could cause a delay because parliament would have to be dissolved.
Belgium woman wearing a burqa (Photo: AP)
France, which has the largest Muslim population in Europe, is also looking towards a ban on wearing veils in public, with the government set to examine a draft bill in May. It could also become law within a few months.
Belgium's French-speaking liberals, who proposed the veil law, argued that an inability to identify people who have hidden their faces presents a security risk and that the veil was a "walking prison" for women.
Wearing the facial veil, known as the niqab and the body-length outer garment, or burqa, widely worn in Afghanistan, could lead to lead to fines of 15-25 euros (about $20 to $33) and imprisonment for up to seven days.
The bill's chief promoter, Daniel Bacquelaine, said local mayors could suspend the ban during festivities such as Carnival when people traditionally wear costumes, including masks.
The law could also be used against potentially violent demonstrators who covered their faces.
Bacquelaine estimated that a few hundred women in Belgium wore facial veils and said it was a rising trend.