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Australia Facing Choice: To Niqab or Not to Niqab

Australian Parliament to vote on niqab ban after traffic offense fiasco.
By David ben Yacov
First Publish: 7/28/2011, 4:06 PM / Last Update: 7/28/2011, 9:10 PM

Some 2,000 women out of the 400,000 Muslims who living in Australia wear a niqab face veil, and they may soon have to remove it for police identification.

According to a new proposal to be voted on in August, Muslim women in New South Wales, including Sydney, will have to lift their veils upon police request of identification. A woman refusing to do so could get a year in prison and a fine of 5,500 Australian dollars (5,900 USD).

The bill has been condemned by civil libertarians and Muslims as an "overreaction to a traffic offense case". The "traffic offense case" involved Carnita Matthews, who was booked last June for a minor traffic violation. She filed a false complaint against the police officer, claiming he attempted to force the niqab veil off her face. Unknown to her, the incident was filmed and the police footage showed the officer standing politely by while being berated by the livid Matthews, who reluctantly revealed her face.

Matthews' conviction and prison term were overturned. She  was not punished for her false deposition because the judge was not convinced that the veiled woman who signed it was actually Matthews.

The New South Wales state Cabinet decided to create the law on July 4 in response to Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione's call for greater police powers after the court case. Other states, including Victoria and Western Australia, are considering similar legislation.

Sydney's Daily Telegraph declared the proposal "the world's toughest burqa laws." Australian Council for Civil Liberties spokesman David Bernie, said that the new proposal “Seems heavy-handed, and shows cultural insensitivity.” 

Perhaps, responded the Jihad Watch website, the niqab is "culturally insensitive" to Australians. After all, in the West, the female face is not a private part . The niqab is the product of a society where women are segregated, always under the control of male "guardians," and live as perpetual minors. Australia is no such society, and pressuring it to be "sensitive" to a practice incompatible with its values of equal rights and responsibilities of men and women before the law is absurd. It becomes a means of selective participation in society at the whim of the wearer (or in other cases, those who make her wear it), and presumes a right to pick and choose her responsibilities in society. That is not equality under the law, either for men and women or Muslims and non-Muslims.

On the other hand, a veiled mother of five complained that after driving for 18 years in Sydney with a niqab with no offenses, she will now feel intimidated, with her privacy invaded. She wouldn’t mind showing her face to a policewoman – but not to a male.

"I don't care whether a person is wearing a motorcycle helmet, a burqa, niqab, face veil or anything else — the police should be allowed to require those people to make their identification clear," State Premier Barry O'Farrell said in a statement. He did not address the issue of the  policeman's gender.

In April 2011, France banned wearing the burqa, a garment that exposes only the hands and eyes, in public. The fine for breaking the law is 150 euro (217 USD).

Belgium followed in May, becoming the second EU country to forbid any clothing that obscures identity. Offenders face a fine of 137.5 euros (£121; $197) and up to seven days in jail. The law was passed almost unanimously by the lower house of parliament with only two abstentions, on the grounds of security. Some MPs also said that full face veils such as the burka or the niqab were a symbol of the oppression of women.
Two women who wear full veils launched an immediate court challenge, saying the law is discriminatory. Women who insist on the full veil will not be able to leave home, they claimed.

"We consider the law a disproportionate intrusion into fundamental rights such as the freedom of religion and expression," Ines Wouters, the lawyer representing the two women challenging the ban, told the newspaper La Libre. She has taken their case to Belgium's constitutional court, where she will request a suspension of the law on Friday, AFP news agency reported.