Call for reassurance over headscarves in court

DISCRIMINATION: Yasmeen Ali is considering laying a complaint with the Human Rights Commission.
DISCRIMINATION: Yasmeen Ali is considering laying a complaint with the Human Rights Commission.

Race Relations Commissioner Joris de Bres is calling on the courts to reassure the Muslim community that wearing a headscarf in court is acceptable.

Yasmeen Ali was attempting to enter Hastings District Court on Tuesday to support her brother Carlos Manuel Brooking, 22, who was appearing for sentencing on a charge of assault.

Ms Ali, a 25-year-old mother-of-three, was asked by a court attendant to remove her headscarf on entering the courthouse. She refused and took a seat.

When she tried to re-enter court after the morning break, she was blocked.

She complained to the court manager, who told her she could not enter wearing a headscarf because the judge, Geoff Rea, had forbidden it.

Ms Ali was considering laying a complaint with the Human Rights Commission.

But a spokeswoman for the commission said yesterday that courts had their own jurisdiction and it could not intervene. "According to the Human Rights Act, if a particular action is taken inside a court, the Human Rights Commission can not take an issue any further."

Mr de Bres today called for reassurance for the Muslim community.

"I can't imagine a nun being told to remove such attire, and the same should apply to others who wear head coverings for religious reasons, such as Muslims, Sikhs and Jews," he said.

"The account of what happened is somewhat disputed and a clear statement from the court of what actually occurred would be helpful."

Muslim Labour MP Ashraf Choudhary said he was disappointed to hear about the incident. "I would like to see a clear reason given why she was not allowed in." Headscarves were normal dress for Muslim women.

Ms Ali, formerly Kaylene Brooking, is Maori and converted to Islam seven years ago.

She said she often wore a different form of headscarf which covers most of her face, but wore a hijab on Tuesday as she knew the fuller version would not be allowed in court.

"I think it was discrimination not allowing me to wear it. I just wanted to be in the courtroom. I really can't see how this makes sense if I'm just sitting in the courtroom. I can understand it being a problem if I was in the dock."

Her brother had earlier been put into custody after refusing to remove a hat while sitting in court awaiting his sentencing, despite being requested to do so by Judge Rea.

Brooking apologised later in the dock and was sentenced to 125 hours' community work for the assault.

Judicial communications adviser Neil Billington said the incident was the result of Judge Rea's "mistaken assumption of what was occurring in the courtroom".

"The judge required the removal of the woman because of her association with [her brother] who had just been removed.

"The judge had mistakenly assumed that her headgear was a demonstration of protest at the court.

"He did not require her removal because of any objection to the wearing of Muslim headgear. "

Council for Civil Liberties spokesman Michael Bott said the judge's decision was "open to question".

"New Zealand is a tolerant, liberal, democratic society. District courts are known for their robust common sense, and it seems regrettable this woman wasn't shown a degree of tolerance."

He had seen people wearing turbans, skull caps and other forms of headwear in the public galleries of courtrooms, including Muslim headscarves. "I can't see what the problem is."

- with NZPA

The Dominion Post