Australia’s most populous state, New South Wales, approved a law which allows police to demand that Muslim women remove face veils and other coverings. The additional powers are said to be necessary so that police can establish the woman’s identity, but the law is already being criticized by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. The police association of New South Wales said that the law was removing a “loophole,” and that it would “provide clarity and certainty for both the public and for police officers.” Civil liberties organizations, however, are concerned that the law gives too much power to the police.
Under the previous law, a woman could be asked to remove her facial covering if she was suspected of a serious crime, but now, police can require her to remove her veil regardless of the severity of the offense. Women who refuse to unveil could face up to a year in prison and a fine of 5,500 Australian dollars (around $5,900).
The legislation was created in response to a high-profile case last year involving a woman wearing a garment that left only her eyes uncovered. She was convicted of falsely accusing an officer of trying to remove her burqa during a random breath test, but an appeal judge later ruled that she had to be freed, because since the woman who made the complaint was wearing a burqa, it was impossible to know her identity for sure.
Members of the Muslim community have said that they would comply with the regulations, but only if the requests to remove face veils were made sensitively. Muslim authorities said that there was nothing in the Qur’an or the hadith forbidding women to remove their veils for a police officer. For example, women have said that they would have no qualms unveiling in front of a female police officer, but they feel unsure that such a request would be honored.
“If I’m pulled over by a policeman, I might say I want to see a female police lady and he says, ‘No, I want to see your face,’” one woman explained. “Where does that leave me? Do I get penalized 5,000 dollars and sent to jail for 12 months because I wouldn’t?”
Like in France, another country with restrictions on Muslim women’s full-body veils, women who choose to wear the burqa or niqab are a tiny segment of the population. Of Australia’s 400,000 Muslims (who themselves are only about 2 percent of the total population), only 2,000 women wear face veils. Many are asking whether it’s necessary to impose such stringent requirements on an issue that affects so few people. Others are questioning whether, as in other places, the veil is being legally targeted to indicate hostility toward the country’s Muslims. One lawyer pointed out that police officers can only ask women whose faces are covered to remove their coverings, not veils that merely cover the hair.
In any case, it will be telling once the law goes into place, to see whether any women are fined or jailed. That will indicate whether there’s a need for the law, but also whether it’s being unjustly enforced.
Photo from Steve Evans via Wikimedia Commons.