The following article was published in the Herald Sun
THE push for new laws giving Victorian police the authority to request facial identification of Muslim women wearing burqas is a double-up.
As it stands, there is little evidence to suggest that under current laws police have ever been precluded from enforcing the identification of anyone with a face covering.
This right is enshrined in law under the common law, Road Safety Act 1986 and the Crimes Act 1958.
For instance, if a motorcyclist is pulled over for speeding, a police officer is authorised to request identification and the motorcyclist is obliged to remove his or her helmet.
There is nothing in the law that explicitly spells out this authority. You will not find a law that says a police officer may request a face covering be removed, however this authority is evident in the legal requirement of a person to identify themselves when necessary, and for the purpose of not obstructing police in the performance of their duties.
In fact, in the recent case of Carnita Matthews, her lawyer argued this point, which was upheld in the NSW court – that the person who provided the false declaration at the police station was not asked to identify themselves. The court accepted this view and Matthews’s conviction was overturned as a result.
In essence, the onus was on the police officer in the police station to request the identification of the person who was wearing a niqab and not the other way around.
The fact that no one at the police station made this request, legally, should not lie at the feet of the woman wearing a niqab.
At its core, this is an issue of awareness, or lack thereof. What has become quite clear in the past few weeks is that Muslims in Australia have no problem with the underlying principle to identify for the purpose of ensuring security, public safety and complying with the law of the land. If there is a just cause behind the need to identify, and this request is made respectfully, by and large the community would not object.
While it is preferable for a female police officer to make the identification, this may not always be practicable under all circumstances. It would follow that a male officer may make the necessary identification.
In many Muslim countries around the world, such a process is commonplace and necessary in maintaining security and safety.
This practice of identification of Muslim women wearing a niqab or burqa can take place under current laws. We have yet to be consulted or convinced of the requirement for additional laws to be introduced, when the desired outcome could easily and simply be achieved by creating awareness within the police force of this reality. The point being, it is simply the need to educate law enforcement officials as to their obligation to identity-check Muslim women in necessary circumstances.
To pass this proposed legislation would serve only to send a message to the broader community that until the introduction of these new laws, Muslim women have had the ability to exploit a (nonexistent) loophole in the law. This would be a grossly inaccurate picture to paint of such a tiny group of Muslim women who choose to cover their faces.
To put it bluntly, the only gains to be made by some with these laws would be political. Not law and order or greater social cohesion.
Laws should not be made on the back of one isolated incident in a different state and without local community consultation.
The case with Carnita Matthews was unfortunate, and Australian Muslims are disappointed with the false claims she may have levelled against the police officer.
An even more unfortunate situation would be to react in a knee-jerk fashion and introduce laws that are inelegant, unnecessary and excessive.
Nazeem Hussain is Islamic Council of Victoria treasurer