In the clash of cultures between the West and Muslim world, few battles have been more fiercely fought than the one raging in Europe today over the burqa. The burqa, or full-face veil, was the law for women in Afghanistan under the Taliban, and is still worn these days in the more conservative parts of the Middle East, as well as in Europe, raising questions about how far liberal democracies should go in tolerating such dress codes.

Belgium gave an answer Wednesday when parliamentarians backed a draft law that would ban Muslim women from wearing the burqa in public places. The Justice and Home Affairs Committee voted unanimously to endorse the move, which must now be approved by parliament for it to become law. Such a vote is expected by the end of April, which would make Belgium the first European country to implement a ban. Because of the support for the measure among all the main political parties, it is likely to pass.

The draft law would make it illegal to wear clothing that covers all or part of the face, which would also include the facial veil known as the niqab. Defying the rule could lead to nominal fines of $20 to $35 or possible imprisonment for up to seven days. Proponents say they're targeting the burqa not because of its religious symbolism or even because it is widely seen in the West as a sign of male oppression, but rather for safety reasons: they say that people who hide their faces represent a security risk. In that light, the law also seeks to target potentially violent demonstrators who cover their faces, backers say.

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