Niqab laws barely used, review finds

(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)

New laws requiring people in New South Wales to uncover their face for police identification have reportedly caused anxiety among some Muslim women.

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However, a review by the state’s Ombudsman has found the leglisation has been little used.

The Ombudsman’s report, tabled to the New South Wales parliament, found police used the power less than 10 times in the first year it was introduced.

The findings have some civil liberty groups wondering if the law is needed at all.

New South Wales law changed two years ago after a woman was accused of falsely claiming a police officer tried to remove her niqab at a traffic stop.

The Law Enforcement Powers and Responsibilities Act was expanded to include a provision which authorises police to require that a person uncover their face when being identified.

The New South Wales Ombudsman has conducted a review of the law and says it was used infrequently and uncontroversially.

However, Ombudsman Bruce Barbour says the laws have enhanced the identification process.

“We do believe the law is beneficial and we think that it’s an improvement. It certainly clarifies the circumstances when a person can be asked or required to remove face coverings. And I think what it also does is it balances that with protections and safeguards in the legislation.”

Of the eight documented instances between 2011 and 2012, seven of them involved a woman wearing a niqab.

The review found some women were concerned about male police officers misunderstanding their request for further privacy as a challenge to the officer’s authority.

Some women said they avoided driving out of their suburb in case they encountered male officers who weren’t used to interacting with women wearing a niqab.

Mr Barbour says indications that the new laws are causing anxiety for some Muslim women often relates to privacy.

“I think if there is any anxiety that arises it is just in circumstances where it is a male officer involved and also there is little opportunity to provide privacy.”

Under the current law the onus is on an individual to request a female police officer.

However, even if a female officer is requested, there is no obligation for the police officer to follow through with the request.

This 64-year-old Muslim woman works in Lakemba in Sydney.

She doesn’t wear a face covering, but says many women in the community are concerned about the extent of police powers.

“They were very anxious, they didn’t like it. Because It would prevent them from driving or going out like doing whatever they want freely. I think with the mention of a few rules to help them in situations where in front of another officer, female office or in a private room. So that will make them maybe a little bit more at ease. But its still the extent and implementation of this recommendation we don’t know how far it is going to go. It depends on the situation and on the officer of the time. So it’s still not helping a lot.”

The review has recommended that, where requested and practicable, a female officer be made available to look at the face of any woman.

The United Muslim Women Association in New South Wales says this is important, because for many Muslim women the process of revealing their face to a male stranger is invasive.

The Association’s Executive Officer Maha Abdo says privacy should be an important consideration.

“I think for most women that practice, wearing the burqa, the niqab, it is a spiritual act. It is something that they hold very, very dearly. In the that fact that it’s very similar to sort of wearing clothes. And a lot of people don’t like to undress in front of others.”

The New South Wales Police Force submitted to the review that any new safeguard could be used to deliberately delay police operations.

Ombudsman Bruce Barbour says the recommendations are practical and have acknowledged that there needs to be a balance between police duties and religious beliefs.

Some other groups say the motivation for introducing the law in the first place was purely political.

President of the New South Wales Council of Civil Liberties Cameron Murphy says the law creates an unnecessary divide in Australian communities.

“Well I think it’s very difficult to see how a law has been beneficial when the law isn’t being used. I mean what’s been demonstrated in the past periods since the law’s been enacted is that it’s not necessary. And the only thing the law has served to do is create a rift between the Islamic Australians and the rest of the community.”

But Maha Abdo says people in the Islamic community are generally supportive of the law, because it clarifies police roles.

“I’d like to have less laws and more social interaction and awareness but unfortunately it’s not happening. So this particular law or legislation when it came in I don’t see it at all as a tool of division. Rather I see it as a tool of recognising that these are the issues that we need to work with.”

A significant problem the review did identify was a lack of awareness about the police powers in the wider community.

Ombudsman Bruce Barbour says knowledge of the legislation is important if it is to continue to run smoothy.

“We’ve certainly recommended as part of this review that there be ongoing education, community consultation and engagement. To make sure that everybody knows as well as possible what the circumstances are of the law how it can be used, what the potential penalties are.”