President Maithripala Sirisena has taken the extraordinary step of effectively banning the niqab, a face covering worn by some Muslim women, under the country’s Emergency regulations, promulgated after the Easter Sunday bombings claimed by ISIS. It makes Sri Lanka the only country outside Europe to take such a decision. The directive does not explicitly mention the garment, which covers the face almost entirely and leaves narrow openings only for the eyes. It says all face coverings are banned for national security reasons. It is unfortunate that President Sirisena took such an extreme step without wider consultation, as it goes against the fundamental freedoms set out in the Sri Lankan constitution. Even accepting that the Emergency gives the government vast powers to suspend some freedoms, this is an unwarranted and extreme measure. The niqab is an import from the Middle East. It is not a common sight in Sri Lanka. Few women wear it. There is now the danger that the ban on the niqab will be read up in its implementation to include the more commonly worn hijab and burqa, especially as there have been demands earlier by Buddhist extremists that these garments should be banned. It could also open up demands for banning other visible identity markers, such as caps and bears worn by men.
Significantly, even before the President took the step, Muslim civil society organisations and the clergy had already urgently appealed to their “sisters” to stop wearing the full face veil or desist from being seen in public spaces wearing it. It is unclear if the male dominated civil society groups and the leadership of the clergy thought through the implications of the appeal. It is clear the community, which is more integrated into the Sri Lankan polity and economy than the Tamils, are fearful of the repercussions of the attack, and wants to play down identity markers. It is unclear if the women in the community were consulted. They are being asked to shoulder the burden of holding up the community’s credentials.
It cannot be stressed enough that the problem that has erupted in Sri Lanka has not been caused by women’s apparel. Banning the niqab may make the government look as if it is taking action, but it is hardly the way to meet the challenge posed by radicalism of the ISIS kind. From 2015 at least, Sri Lanka has been aware that some of its young citizens have been attracted to ISIS and were travelling to Syria for battle innoculation. There is no evidence to show that it acted seriously on this information. True, Sri Lanka was still in the first flush of the post-Rajapakse years, and the government was more focussed on dismantling some of the authoritarian structures from his time. Still, it is beyond comprehension that the government did not have an accurate handle on the radicalisation of even the handful of ISIS recruits.