New requirements that visitors to the Australian parliament buildings in Canberra show photo ID will prove problematic for Australia’s small minority of burka wearers who are being relegated to elevated sound-proof glass boxes rather than being allowed in the ordinary public galleries.
The updated regulations, which are part of a broader security review which is still underway are in response to threats made specifically against Australia by the self declared caliphate ISIS. The nature of change is clearly based upon the Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s own thoughts on Islam and the Australian democracy, which were illustrated when he spoke on the burka last week: “Now I’ve said before I find it a fairly confronting form of attire and frankly I wish it weren’t worn… [but] We are a free country, we are a free society and it’s not the business of government to tell people what they should and shouldn’t wear”.
Accordingly the garment has not been banned from the parliament buildings, but has instead those who have full face coverings (including the Burka, masks, and helmets) are restricted to a special soundproofed viewing area in the roof, which was traditionally used to accommodate noisy school groups on educational trips.
Despite the fact the Canberra Muslim community remains small and according to the Prime Minister no one has yet attempted to enter the building wearing a full-face veil, the minor change in security procedure has caused consternation among some. The Times of Canberra reports the comments of Azra Khan, president of the Canberra Islamic Centre who said: “My view is that Parliament House is obviously a very important place to all Australians and to exclude entry on the basis of dress is very discriminatory, so I think we’re getting into dangerous territory here”.
The preemptive security measure has also proved unpopular with the users of social media, with the hashtag ‘burkabox’, describing the soundproof room trending in Australia.
Despite the misgivings of Australia’s twitterscape, burkas have been giving cause for concern in the security communities of other Western Democracies in recent years. The French Republic banned full face coverings including burkas and ski-masks in 2010 for reasons of personal identification, which is the same justification given by Australia’s parliament. Remarkably, the covering which is provided for women by some interpretations of Islamic law has also been used as an accessory to crime by some men.
A North London man who was suspected of being an associate of Somali terror group al-Shabab evaded police surveillance by wearing a burka and absconding from a mosque in November last year. In July 2013, five British thieves used burkas to mask their identities during a £1.5 million raid at up-market department store Selfridges, as they concealed axes and hammers under the black garment. They were foiled when two members crashed their getaway moped on the busy shopping street.