The Controversy with Niqabs in Court

Back in August of this year, the BBC website reported that an Australian judge ordered a 36 year old witness to remove her niqab while testifying before a jury in a fraud case.  The niqab is a full face veil covering and could be said to be the cousin of the hijab, which is just a head covering.

The woman known as “Tasneem” has worn her full veil face covering since she was 17 only removing it in front of family and male blood relatives.  The prosecutor alleged that “Tasneem” would be uncomfortable without her niqab; therefore, affecting her evidence.  However, defense lawyer Mark Trowell argued that the jury should be able to watch her facial expressions.  He further purported that it is a preference to wear the niqab not an essential part of the Islamic faith.  According to the Herald Sun, Trowell went on to say that women often appear in Islamic courts without their face covering.

Many European countries are planning on passing laws that make it illegal to wear full face veils not only in a court of law but in all public places.  According to a related article, “French MP’s vote to ban Islamic full veil in public”, also featured on the BBC website, The French National Assembly voted and passed a ban on full veil coverings in public.  As of July 2010, it was estimated that only 2,000 women wear full veils in France.  Not surprisingly, the bill is opposed by the 5 million Muslims living there.

Do you think this is an unsubstantiated fear of differences or a justified necessity to understand a person’s intent through the most expressive part of the body- the face? Do you think it is extreme to extend a ban to all public places?

An interesting fact: (which, among many others will be unveiled in our new cross-cultural adaptation tool in November) ancient Sumerian women have worn veils in the Middle East for about 4,000 years as a means of survival against the harsh weather and as a status symbol by married upper class women.  It could be analogous to what a wedding ring does in the U.S.  Since then it has evolved into a religious value and is now worn by most women in the Middle East.

The Muslim woman in question has lived in Australia for 7 years.  Do you think that the importance of the facial expressions of witness, defendants and experts when testifying in a court of law should supersede religious values or traditions?

France’s bill already passed by the National Assembly has just been passed by the Senate as well with a 246 to 1 majority vote.  Supporters of the bill claim that it is in support of women’s rights and not an effort to single out or stigmatize a religion.

Some critics argue that the law breaches French and European human rights legislation.  They contend that public places are too broadly defined and includes all streets, thoroughfares and entertainment venues.

The full veil ban still has to be ruled on by France’s Constitutional Council.  If passed it would fine women 150 euros for breaking the law and 30,000 euros and jail time for husbands who force their wives to wear the burka.

2 responses to “The Controversy with Niqabs in Court”

  1. Anita Pagan says:

    I think the question if women should wear a veil is similar to the question of abortion. It is something very personal, if a woman wants to wear it. But fact here is that often a family (husband at first place) force their women to cover their faces, as the Islam still dictates the lives of its women and their free will is hardly respected.

    Hence in a court I think such a woman should respect the necessity and remove her veil for a questioning.

    Similar maybe they should decide to remove their veil at work, like in public institutions or school. I don’t know if there is such a thing like wearing the veil only in adequate places like in free time, with friends, family and at home, and I understand the conflict here too.

  2. Keith D. says:

    What a complicated issue. On the one hand, it makes sense to me to have a witness’s face uncovered while giving testimony before a court of law. Facial expressions are very important in understanding a person. But on the other hand, I’m not sure your typical jury member is really apt enough to be able to differentiate between emotional affect as the result of the testimony being given vs. the emotional affect of having one’s face unveiled before the public in a way that the person is clearly not accustomed to. That seems like a really dangerous position to put a jury in, as if it’s not precarious enough with the average person’s ability to read people and determine honesty vs. deception.

    I can understand the women’s rights aspect of banning the veils and I can support that. But I don’t know if banning the full-face veil is really the best answer– it seems short-sighted and reckless to me. A real solution would require there to be a mutual respect toward both sides and from the way France’s ban has been reported in the news, it’s hard to see that mutual respect.

    I can also see banning the full-face veil in a court of law. But, since we can’t see our own faces without a mirror or video screen, maybe a better way to do this other than an outright ban would be to replace the lower part of the veil (as in the photo accompanying this post) with a very sheer cloth. This would allow the jury to see a witness’s facial expressions while also leaving the witness with the psychological comfort of feeling the full-face veil that they’re accustomed to, thus minimizing any emotional effects that not wearing a veil before strangers in public might have.

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