Australia’s parliament has abandoned amid an outcry a controversial plan to make women wearing the niqab or the face veil sit in separate glassed public enclosure in the building due to security concerns.
The backdown on Monday followed a decision on October 2 to seat people wearing face coverings in areas normally reserved for noisy school children while visiting parliament.
It followed heated debate about potential security risks since the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) organisation.
The ruling was condemned by human rights and race discrimination groups, and Prime Minister Tony Abbott asked that it be reconsidered.
Race discrimination commissioner Tim Soutphommasane told Fairfax Media the original ruling meant Muslim women were being treated differently to non-Muslim women.
“No-one should be treated like a second-class citizen, not least in the parliament,” he said.
“I have yet to see any expert opinion or analysis to date which indicates that the burqa or the niqab represents an additional or special security threat.”
‘No security reason’
Labor opposition member Tony Burke welcomed the backdown but said the initial decision should never have been made.
“What possessed them to think that segregation was a good idea?” he said. “Segregation was previously introduced, apparently, with no security advice attached to it and no security reason attached to it.”
The October 2 announcement was made a few hours before the end of the final sitting day of Parliament’s last two-week session and had no practical effect.
A statement announcing the reversal of the ban said face coverings would have to be removed temporarily at the security check point at the front door so that staff could “identify any person who may have been banned from entering Parliament House or who may be known, or discovered, to be a security risk.”
Security has increased at Parliament House since the government stepped up its terror warning to the second-highest level on a four-tier scale last month in response to the domestic threat posed by supporters of ISIL. Australia is participating in the US-led coalition against the fighters in Iraq.