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Australia moves on head-covering laws

July 6, 2011 at 6:16 AM   |   Comments

PERTH, Australia, July 6 (UPI) -- A second Australian state is considering a law that would require a woman wearing a burqa to remove it when requested by police.

Western Australia's Police Minister Rob Johnson will propose a law to the Western Australia Cabinet that makes it an offense to not remove headgear, including motorcycle helmets as well as burqas, when asked to do so by police.

"I don't think that's unreasonable, it's going to happen in New South Wales, it happens in other countries," he said.

Johnson said Western Australia police have no power to request people to remove head coverings -- even a veil over the face -- when they are pulled over in their vehicle.

However, as the law stands, someone under arrest must remove head-coverings if requested.

"If someone commits a serious crime, they are arrested and can be taken back to the police station and then be forced to identify themselves by removing a face covering," he said. "But if somebody is pulled over for a road traffic offense, they can't be ... they cannot be forced to remove their facial covering or indeed a crash helmet."

Johnson said the proposed law amendment had nothing to do with banning any headgear, in particular burqas.

"We need to be sensitive and I'm not going to get into the argument of whether burqas should be banned or not."

The Western Australia initiative comes after New South Wales approved a similar law this week. That move divided various groups -- but not in predictable ways.

The New South Wales government beefed up legislation that already said a person must remove their head-covering but only when suspected of a serious crime and not when asked to do so for simple identification purposes.

What forced the state government's hand was a recent high-profile case in which a Muslim woman, wearing a burqa, had a 6-month jail sentence overturned on appeal because of doubts about her identity.

Anyone refusing a police request to remove a head-covering faces a fine of up to $5,500 or a yearlong jail sentence.

Civil liberties groups in New South Wales are up in arms over the law but many Muslim groups are relaxed about it.

NSW Council for Civil Liberties Vice President David Bernie said it was overkill resulting from one special situation.

"But overall I can't see a case made out where there has been a problem that needs new laws, in traffic situations or beyond," he said.

Ikebal Patel, president of Muslims Australia, an umbrella body for Islamic councils, said the New South Wales government may have overreacted because of the case where the woman won her appeal. However, religious freedom and the right to pursue criminality unfettered can coexist, he told The Australian newspaper.

"A crime-free environment is paramount for a civilized and harmonious society and so is freedom of religious expression. There is no reason for these not to coexist in a nation such as Australia, which is renowned for its culture of generosity."

Police officers should be able to do their work unhindered. As long as they show sensitivity toward a Muslim woman wearing a burqa or other covering, "and if there is a woman officer present to show their face to her, or if not just a quick identification of the face and not asking her to expose her hair, that would be acceptable," Patel said.

Islamic Council of NSW Chairman Khaled Sukkarieh agreed with Patel, saying there is nothing in the Koran that says women shouldn't remove facial coverings for identification if a crime were suspected.

"It's got to be done sensitively but we trust our police officers," Sukkarieh told The Australian.

Muslim groups in Western Australia are equally unperturbed by that state's proposed new law.

Ethnic Communities Council former President Suresh Rajan said he had no problem with the law. But he didn't believe it was necessary to introduce specific legislation to deal with the issue. In the interest of health and legal reasons there is no issue about a woman removing her burqa in front of a male.

"I don't see that there is any need for changing legislation; that could have been done within the existing legislation," Rajan told the Western Australian newspaper in Perth.

"You would have to really struggle to find somebody who would be so dogmatic as to insist to keep the veil on if a police officer asks them to remove it."

Topics: Rob Johnson
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