Cairo, Egypt - Muslim women in Australia’s most populous state will have to remove their face-veils to have their signatures officially witnessed under new stricter identity check laws.
"If a person refuses to show their face, an authorized witness must decline to sign their documents unless the person has a legitimate medical reason for keeping their face covered," Greg Smith, attrney general of the New South Wales state, said in a statement cited by the Guardian on Monday, March 5."In some situations, it means individuals wearing full or partial face-covering garments will need to reveal their faces for the purposes of identification."
Coming into effect on April 30, the new laws will apply to statutory declarations and affidavits.
They will cover anything that conceals a person's face, including motorcycle helmets, masks, face-veils as burqas or niqabs.
Those who refuse would not have their document authenticated and could also face a fine of $220.
Justifying the new tougher rules, Smith referred to a recent case by a Sydney woman, Carnita Matthews, 47, who was sentenced in 2010 to six months' jail for falsely accusing a police officer of trying forcibly to remove her face-veil
Later on, she made a criminal complaint to police three days after she was pulled over from her car in Woodbine, southwest Sydney, for a random breath test on June 7, 2010.
New South Wales is home to 168.788 Muslims, about 49.6 percent of the total population, making the state a habitat to the largest Muslim population, according to the 2006 government Census.
Muslims, who have been in Australia for more than 200 years, make up 1.7 percent of its 20-million population.
Islam is the country's second largest religion after Christianity.
While hijab is an obligatory code of dress for Muslim women, the majority of Muslim scholars agree that a woman is not obliged to wear the face veil, or niqab, but believe that it is up to women to decide whether to cover her face.
Despite toughening rules for face-veiled women, New South Wales' Muslims say the change would not have an impact on the community.
"The majority will accept it," Aziza Abdel-Halim, the president of the Muslim Women's National Network of Australia, told The Guardian.
She argued thta the law is already applied in many Muslim countries.
"Some will reject it, but they won't have a leg to stand on because the law is the law."
David Bernie, the vice-president of the NSW Council for Civil Liberties, agreed.
"I really don't think this should cause any problems as long as a woman has the opportunity for a female JP to witness documents, and there are plenty of female JPs and solicitors in NSW."
In Victoria, a similar demand was made by the Law Institute of Victoria, which called for stricter laws for burqa-clad women to show their face when asked to witness their signature.
"I can understand the practical issues why identification is important, and I think as long as we remain culturally and religiously sensitive then there's probably some support for it," President of Law Institute of Victoria, Michael Holcroft, told India television.
He said its implementation should be accompanied by an education campaign so that people were culturally aware.
"I would like to see some best practice put out there so people don't intentionally cause offence," he said.
Islamic Council of Victoria spokesman Nazeem Hussain said existing laws empowering police to demand anyone to remove a facial covering were sufficient.
"What is clear, 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," he said.