Belgian lawmakers are set to vote on a proposed ban on wearing face-covering veils in public, a day after neighbouring France proposed enacting similar legislation.
The scheduled vote on Thursday in Brussels comes after the federal parliament's home affairs committee voted unanimously on March 31 to endorse a nationwide ban on clothing that does not allow the wearer to be fully identified.
The ban would include the full-face niqab and the burqa, a shapeless full-body cloak that covers the face with a fabric grille.
Those who ignore the ban could face a fine of up to $34 and/or a jail sentence of up to seven days.
Belgium's governing parties and opposition both appear to agree on the ban, and the full house is expected to easily endorse the draft law.
If enacted, the bill would make Belgium the first European country to ban the garments.
'Respect the law'
Xavier Baselen, a member of Belgium's Reformist Movement party, which drafted the law, said the ban is needed for reasons of public order.
"It's true that when you live in a country you have to accept the laws of that country," he told Al Jazeera.
"In Belgium we decided [that] to be visible in the street is [a] real important law at a public order point of view.
"So people who come to live here have to respect the law the way we have to respect the law in other countries."
But Salma, a 22-year-old in Belgium, told Al Jazeera that she fears being targeted for wearing the niqab and is often harassed on the streets for it. However, she said she will not remove it.
"If you forbid the niqab, you deprive that person of their right of expressing themselves," she said.
"I will continue to wear my niqab. I will remove it if a representative of the law will ask me to identify myself, but will put it back on straight away."
The move is to come a day after Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, announced moves to enact a full ban on the face-covering veil in public as well.
Sarkozy told a cabinet meeting on Wednesday that the veil "hurts the dignity of women and is not acceptable in French society", Luc Chatel, a French government spokesman, said.
Chatel said the bill banning the veil from all public spaces would be presented to ministers in May.
"We're legislating for the future. Wearing a full veil is a sign of a community closing in on itself and a rejection of our values," he said.
Criticism and praise
The French proposal has attracted both fierce criticism and praise in the home of the largest Muslim community in the 27-member European Union.
The proposed ban on face veils represents worrying trend across Europe, think-tank says
Almost 10 per cent of France's 62 million population is Muslim.
Many feminists from France's poor, multi-ethnic suburbs have spoken out in support of a ban, saying it could help young women who did not want to wear the veil but were forced to do so by their partners or families.
Others, however, see the ban as part of a rising hostility against Islam and its symbols, and argue that many Muslim women actually want to cover up.
The debate has spread as far as Afghanistan, where some women's rights activists expressed outrage at the French proposal, saying they disliked the burqa but women should be free to wear whatever they wanted.
The vast majority of Muslim women, in France and elsewhere, do not wear a full veil, but the niqab, as it is known, which covers the face apart from the eyes, is widely worn on the Arabian peninsular and in the Gulf states.
The burqa is worn in some areas of Pakistan, India and Afghanistan.