Removing face veil in court ‘no problem’, in eyes of Muslims

(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)

I can only see the eyes of that defendant.

南宁桑拿

Those are the words of a magistrate in a Brisbane courtroom, pondering about what he called the “validity” of a Muslim woman wearing a niqab in an Australian courtroom.

He didn’t pursue the matter further, but it was enough to push the issue back into the headlines.

Ron Sutton reports on reaction within the Muslim community.

Leading Australian Muslim figures say they support judges asking women to remove their face coverings if necessary after the issue arose again recently in a Brisbane courtroom.

Brisbane magistrate John Costello actually declined to ask a woman wearing a niqab to uncover her face as he sentenced her for leaving her baby unattended in a hot car.

But he asked her lawyer whether it was appropriate that he could only see her eyes before proceeding to sentence her, and his remarks attracted extensive media coverage.

The assistant secretary of Muslims Australia, Keysar Trad, says the country’s Islamic scholars have clearly determined it is no problem for women to remove their face coverings.

“The Islamic scholars in Australia have already reached a position on this, and they’ve published a statement to say that, whilst a person is required to be identified, there are certain points — for example, entering the court building, et cetera — they can remove it temporarily, and, if they’re in the court and they’re giving evidence, they can remove it for the duration of the period that they’re giving evidence. So, where it’s necessary and there’s a legitimate reason for removing it, the scholars have said that they should remove it for that period and then they can put it back on when they finish.”

In Brisbane, the president of the Muslim community festival Eid fest, Yasmin Khan, says it is not an issue.

Ms Khan says it is a matter of fairness and the courts have every right to see the people standing before them.

“They should be able to see the person that they’re standing in judgment on. I think that the judicial system is supposed to be fair and equal for everybody, and I think it’s important that it’s there to protect everybody. In this particular case, it was a matter of court expediency, that she pleaded guilty and away they went, they just signed the papers, and the job was finished. But if she’d pleaded not guilty, or if there was some contest to the charges that were laid against her, then it would be vitally important that they made sure that they had the right person.”

Queensland’s chief justice and the state’s anti-discrimination commissioner both have stated that processes are in place in the state’s court system allowing coverings to be removed.

And the chief justice says that has always been done in a respectful way if required.

Jamila Hussein, formerly with the Muslim Women’s National Network of Australia before becoming a lecturer in law, says it is not just a matter of identification either.

Ms Hussein, now a senior lecturer at the University of Technology in Sydney, says it can be important to see the face of a person giving testimony as well.

“I think, if somebody’s being cross-examined in court, giving evidence, I think that it is relevant that the magistrate, or the judge, should be able to see the person’s facial expressions. If not, if it’s just a routine matter, perhaps it doesn’t matter.”

Yasmin Khan, whose forefathers built the first mosque in Brisbane, says she is unhappy about the way the matter has arisen again because it was a routine matter.

She points out the magistrate did not ask the woman to remove her face covering and the woman did not refuse to do so.

Ms Khan says a report in The Courier-Mail newspaper in Brisbane, which turned the remarks into a headline and a front-page story, worsened already-existing stereotypes.

“It reinforces (accusations) like not integrating into Australian society. It reinforces one rule for one, and another rule for another. You know, people will always say, ‘Oh, well, they want sharia law,’ so there’s always those sorts of issues. You know, (people say) they want their own legal system, you know, women are oppressed, women have to be covered, and yet husbands can walk around uncovered. So there’s a whole heap of stereotypes that go on there that we try so hard to dispel constantly.”

Yasmin Khan estimates fewer than 50 out of 15,000-20,000 Muslim women in Queensland’s southeast wear the niqab.

The niqab is worn most frequently in deeply conservative Middle Eastern countries such as Saudi Arabia, Yemen and parts of Afghanistan and northern Pakistan.

The woman in the Brisbane courtroom, who was sentenced to a six-month good-behaviour bond, was from Saudi Arabia.

Jamila Hussein says it can be embarrassing to a woman from such a background to face men in open court without her face covered.

But she says other arrangements can sometimes be enough, especially in cases of merely needing to confirm a woman’s identity.

“She could go to another room to reveal her identity to a female officer. There should be no difficulty about that.”

Ms Hussein says the head covering of a niqab is usually easy to remove, with an attachment beside the face.

Keysar Trad, of Muslims Australia, says there simply is more flexibility to the rules for those Muslim women in Australia who cover their heads or bodies than many people think.

“In Islam, many rules have a proviso, or an exemption, under certain circumstances. This situation, this situation of giving evidence in the courtroom, is one of the exemptions, even under their school of interpretation.”

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