MP calls for banning of the burqa: ‘Decision requires rational debate’

Maltese law demands visual recognition, says shadow justice minister, so wearing of a burqa must be prohibited

An Abaya veil that is worn in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain
An Abaya veil that is worn in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain

When a 24-year-old French woman took her government to the European Court of Human Rights in opposition to France’s ban on full-face veils, the court upheld the French law.

The woman, of Pakistani origin, had argued that the ban on wearing the veil in public violated her freedom of religion and expression, and gave rise to “discrimination based on gender, religion and ethnic origin, to the detriment of women who wear the full-face veil”.

The European Court’s Grand Chamber however had declared that there had been no violation of Articles 8, 9 and 14 and, among others, the European judges took into account France’s argument that the face “played a significant role in social interaction”.

In the European Union, only Belgium has so far applied a nation-wide ban.

When a woman wearing a full-face veil was spotted driving a car in Malta a few weeks ago, a photo was immediately posted online fuelling a discussion that, elsewhere in Europe, had been raging for years.

So when Nationalist MP Jason Azzopardi took to Facebook calling for amendments to the law about the burqa, his Facebook was inundated with messages of support.

Azzopardi, a lawyer by profession, told MaltaToday that the issue was about consistency of the laws, social cohesion and security issues.

Article 338 of the Criminal Code states that it is a contravention against public order if anyone “in any public place, wears any mask, or disguises himself, except at the time and in the manner allowed by law”.

This is punishable with up to two months' detention, as for any other contravention.

“So if the law clearly wants visual recognition for obvious reasons, does the wearing of a burqa walk hand in hand with this prohibition or go counter? What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander,” Azzopardi argued, speaking in his personal capacity as a citizen and a lawyer.

Referring to the ECHR’s judgement, Azzopardi said that the court had upheld France’s ban on wearing a burka or a niqab in public, ruling that the 2010 law on religious headgear does not breach Muslim women’s human rights.

The Strasbourg court ruled in the case brought by a devout French Muslim that there had been no violation of her right to respect for private and family life, no breach of her right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and no breach of the prohibition of discrimination.

“This judgement does away with any accusation that a ban on wearing the burqa in public infringes on fundamental human rights. On the contrary, social cohesion necessitated the ban in France. Is this argument applicable to France only? I am staunchly in favour of social cohesion and social integration. I am against ghettoisation. I am against any form of unlawful discrimination,” Azzopardi said.

But the wearing of a burqa in a society not accustomed to it gives rise to other considerations, such as security issues, the Nationalist MP added.

After the spate of bank robberies in the late 70s carried out by robbers wearing helmets, it is prohibited for someone to enter a bank wearing a crash helmet. It is illegal – punishable with a fine – for car windows to be colour tinted.

“The Criminal Code prohibits the wearing of masks or any other disguise. The reasoning is very clear: lack of visibility increases either the risk of the commission of a crime or increases the difficulty for the Police in their investigations,” Azzopardi said.

But the MP also felt that a full-face veil could serve as a security threat in case of a terrorist attack: “In view of what is happening around us, tragedies did occur abroad by men or women wearing burqas hiding explosives. Who is able to give a guaranatee that it is impossible to happen closer to home, God forbid?”

Azzopardi went on to add that any decision to ban the use of a full-faced veil in the public should not be based on emotional grounds and should not be influenced by prejudice.

“It should be a decision taken after careful consideration, a rational debate and after hearing out the law enforcement authorities.”