The case of Carnita Matthews, the Sydney woman who was convicted of falsely accusing a police officer of trying to remove her face veil only to have her conviction overturned on appeal resulted in last month’s decision by the New South Wales government to pass a law requiring all people, including burqa-clad women to remove face coverings upon request by police.  This case has fuelled the ongoing Burqa debate in Australia.  In recent months other European countries have also been grappling with the issue.  Recently France has joined Belgium in passing legislation banning wearing of the face veil in public.  Banning the burqa in Australia is a controversial issue which has divided the feminist community.  Freedom of choice lies at the heart of the
matter.

The Burqa or Niqab is a face veil worn by a minority of Muslim women in Australia.  A Burqa refers to a loose fitting garment covering a woman’s entire body including the face and a Niqab refers to a face covering usually with a slit for the
eyes.

Those in opposition to a ban of the face veil state that such a ban is “un-Australian”, contrary to freedom of religious expression and freedom of choice.  Such rights and freedoms are rightly seen by most as being integral characteristics of Australian society.  Freedom of religious expression is key reason cited by those in opposition to a ban.  They argue a true test of tolerance is accepting the religious and cultural practices of others even when they are not in
accordance with one’s own views.

The majority of Muslim scholars agree that covering the female face is not required in Islam. In fact, the words burqa or niqab do not feature in the Quran at all.  Thus, through a ban, the Australian government is not infringing on one’s right to religious expression, as wearing a face veil is not a necessary or widely accepted element of Islamic religious dogma.

If wearing of the burqa is not a religious requirement, then why do some Muslim women wear it?  All cite religion as the core justification but in reality the face veil is worn for a variety of reasons.  Some wear it for because it is a tradition in their family, others might wear it as an expression of their identity, or a show of solidarity against perceived prejudice.
Arguably however, others might feel compelled to wear it because of
pressure from family and acquaintances.  This pressure might be explicitly expressed or more subtly conveyed.

Therefore freedom of choice lies at the heart of this debate.  While many women who wear the face veil claim to do so of their own accord and as an expression of their freedom of choice, inevitably there exists a number that do so as a direct result of cultural, traditional, peer group or  pressure.
A ban would protect those women, however small a number who do not have
the freedom to exercise choice and for whom their religious identity is not
confirmed or denied by what they wear rather what they think and feel. .

If then the Burqa is seen as a cultural rather than religious device, the argument against a ban does not hold firm.   While tolerance and acceptance of different
religious and cultural practices are essential in a multicultural and liberal
society, tolerance can only be stretched so far.  Australian society and therefore government do not tolerate cultural practices which contradict our fundamental values and laws.  For example, if a practice such as child marriage was a cultural tradition of a hypothetical immigrant group; would the Australian government permit this practice on the grounds of freedom of religious expression?  Thus, should we permit an item of clothing that removes a woman’s identity and presence in the public sphere?

Opponents of a ban also assert that women in Australia should have the right to determine their own actions, including their style of dressing.  We have the right to wear a mini-skirt if we so choose, thus we should also have the right to cover our face if we desire.  Does the Australian government have the right to dictate how people can or cannot dress?

In fact, the government of Australia does have the right and many would argue the duty to dictate what is appropriate and inappropriate to wear in public.  The government dictates that it is inappropriate and offensive to appear naked in public.  By a similar logic, it is not an affront to liberal, democratic values for the Australian government to deem the face veil inappropriate for wear in public. The burqa and niqab, by covering a woman’s entire body and face renders her completely invisible in the public sphere and in fact robs her of her individual  identity.  How is such an action consistent with Australian principles of valuing women and their contributions in society as well as the notion of individual rights?  In my opinion this is more contradictory to Australian values than placing restrictions on one’s right to determine their clothing.

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