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Explained: Why Sri Lanka has lifted the veil

An effort to get Muslim women to give up the niqab was already under way in the community. The ban may have made the community more vulnerable, fear Muslim civil society leaders.

Written by Nirupama Subramanian | Mumbai | Updated: April 30, 2019 9:37:02 am
A woman returns from the market with her son in Colombo Monday. (AP Photo)

A week after the Easter Sunday bombings that have been claimed by ISIS, Sri Lanka has effectively banned the niqab, the face covering worn by some Muslim women. The ban order did not specify the face garment by name, nor did it single out any religious or ethnic group. Sri Lanka is possibly the only country in Asia — which has many countries with significant Muslim populations, as well as three Islamic nations, Indonesia, Pakistan and Bangladesh — to pass such an order, and has joined several European nations in taking this step.

The niqab is currently banned in France and Belgium (since 2011), Austria (since 2017), Denmark (since 2018). The Netherlands has a partial ban on wearing any kind of face cover in public transport, schools and hospitals. In Germany, the niqab is banned while driving. The full face veil is banned in Quebec in Canada, and in Barcelona in Spain.

In October 2018, the UN Human Rights Committee declared that France’s ban disproportionately harmed the right of women to manifest their religious beliefs, and could have the effects of “confining them to their homes, impeding their access to public services and marginalising them”. But the French ban on the niqab continues.

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Sri Lanka order

In Sri Lanka, the order was announced on April 28 by President Maithripala Sirisena. The President’s website said “steps” had been taken to ban from April 29 “all forms of face covers that may hinder one’s identity been ascertained, as a threat to national security and public safety”.

The order said “this directive specifies the need for one’s face been clearly visible for ascertaining their identify as the its main criterion”, and that the President had issued this directive “to ensure national security and a peaceful and reconciled society, where no ethnic group or community would be subjected to discomfort”.

The order appears to have taken the Sri Lankan Muslim community by surprise, as they had been earlier given to believe that community leaders should take the lead in this matter, rather than the government bringing a rule or law.

Community’s fears

Muslims constitute less than 10% of Sri Lanka’s population. While the hijab and burqa have become common apparel among Muslim, the niqab not so much.

Shaken by the Easter terror attacks, community leaders had already asked women to stop wearing the niqab in the “interests of national security”. Despite facing the wrath of the LTTE during the civil war years, and post-war, violence by Buddhist extremist groups, the community is socially, economically and politically mainstream. Predominantly traders, Muslims are well educated and upwardly mobile.

After last week’s carnage, many Muslims fear they will be the “new Tamils” of Sri Lanka, with every Muslim becoming a suspect, just as every Tamil had become during the war against the LTTE.

They have been at pains to point out that it was Muslim community leaders in eastern Sri Lanka who had flagged the activities of the National Towheeth Jama’ath and its leader Zaharan Hashim several times to the authorities.

Also read | What the Islamic veil shows, and hides

Appeal to ‘sisters’

Four days after the bombings, which killed more than 250 people and left hundreds injured across the three cities of Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa, the All Ceylon Jamiyaat Ullama (ACJU) put out the following appeal:

“Maintenance of National security: As Muslims, we are obliged to be responsible citizens and protect our motherland and maintain peace and order. We appeal to all, to cooperate with the security forces and law enforcement agencies.

“In particular, we strongly appeal to our sisters to be mindful of the critical emergency situation now prevalent in our country and the difficulties faced by the security officers in performing their functions in situations where the identity of a person cannot be ascertained. Hence, we advise that in the prevailing situation our sisters should not hinder the security forces in their efforts to maintain national security by wearing the face cover (Niqab).

“We also recommend that all persons should carry their National identity card at all times to be produced when required by any public officer.”

A new leadership

In the week after the bombings, the centre of gravity of the community’s leadership has moved towards civil society leaders such as the Sri Lanka Muslim Council, and the clergy represented by the ACJU, from the political leadership, which stands completely discredited.

The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, the main Muslim political party, appears to have ignored the warning signals of the coming storm right under its nose in its strongholds in eastern Sri Lanka. A leader of another political party was close friends with the affluent family to which two of the bombers belonged. None of the leaders have yet visited the Eastern province, where the Muslim community has been living in fear, confusion and uncertainty since the attacks.

On the other hand, the Council and ACJU have been continuously issuing appeals to the community to cooperate in the investigation. Other than asking women not to wear the niqab, the ACJU last week asked mosques to keep Friday sermons to “topics highlighting the fact that ‘Islam Values Lives’”, and asked the community “to turn towards Allah with Taubah (Repentance) & Isthigfhar (Seeking Forgiveness)”.

The ACJU also asked Muslims to extend all the help they could offer to the families of victims, and “visibly display our condemnation of the terror attack and our condolence for the bereaved by hanging a banner in all three languages (Sinhala, Tamil and English) outside the mosques and raising a white flag to share our solidarity”.

Concerns over politics

Hilmy Ahmed, vice-president of the Council, described the Presidential directive as “theatrics” after community leaders had voluntarily said they would get Muslim women to drop the niqab.

“The community had already accepted it, the appeal was issued last week. It’s on social media, but still it may not have trickled down to everyone, so we had asked the Justice Ministry for one more week. During the coming Friday prayers, it was going to be announced in every mosque so that it gets totally disseminated,” Ahmed said. “We were telling women that if they wanted to continue wearing it, they should not come out of their homes — the idea was to make them give it up.”

Now, there is concern that accepting a government ban would create a precedent for more demands on Muslims. “There will be no end to it — next they will say no mosques, no prayers, they will ask us to shave our beards and stop wearing caps. Constitutionally, we have every right to practise our religion in full freedom,” Ahmed said.

Ahmed put down the Presidential order as another consequence of the rift between President Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. The Prime Minister, he said, had agreed to a voluntary giving-up, and therefore, the President had to disagree. Muslim civil society groups and the clergy have asked to meet Sirisena to explain to him that a voluntary giving-up of the garment would work better than an imposition.

“Moreover, the ban will last only as long as the emergency regulations. The way we want to do it, it would be given up permanently,” Ahmed said.

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