Amnesty International has urged the Belgian Parliament not to pass a draft law which would prohibit the wearing of the full face veil anywhere in public.
But parliament's vote on the issue, which was due on Thursday (22 April), has been delayed by the collapse of the country's government on the same day.
Belgium had looked set to be the first European country to outlaw the veil. While the political crisis has held up the issue, Amnesty hope that politicians will choose not to introduce a ban once the political situation is resolved.
“A general ban on the wearing of full face veils would violate the rights to freedom of expression and religion of those women who choose to express their identity or beliefs in this way,” said Claudio Cordone, Amnesty International’s Interim Secretary General.
But Cordone emphasised that, “At the same time the Belgian authorities must make sure that all women who wear the full veil do so without coercion, harassment and discrimination.”
If the law comes into force, those who violate it could either be fined between 15 and 25 Euros or be imprisoned for between one and seven days, or both. People wearing masks because of the nature of their work or because they take part in festivals would be exempted.
Over the last few months there has been growing public debate in Europe on the wearing of full face veils, such as the niqab or the burqa, by Muslim women.
Last week, the French government announced that it would shortly be putting a similar draft law before Parliament.
International human rights law guarantees people the right to freedom of expression and freedom to manifest their religion or beliefs. Amnesty says that these freedoms extend to the way in which people choose to dress.
The organisation adds that states must therefore not impose generally applicable requirements that women dress or do not dress in a certain way, and they must protect women from the imposition of such requirements by third parties, including families and communities.
“Women must not be compelled to wear a headscarf or veil, either by the state or by individuals; and it is wrong for them to be prohibited by law from wearing it,” Claudio Cordone said.
“However, some clearly defined restrictions on the wearing of full face veils for the purposes of public safety will be legitimate. For example, it will be perfectly legitimate for women to be asked to lift their veils for identity checks.”
Amnesty International emphasise that they do not believe that a general ban on the wearing of full face veils in public is “necessary or proportionate for any legitimate objective”.