DAY ONE of an unprecedented ban on face veils in Sri Lanka, amid a fresh security alert after the Easter Sunday blasts, played out on two levels within the Muslim community that forms nearly 10 per cent of the population: Many women spoke out against the move while the clergy endorsed it for “security reasons” and hoped it would be a temporary measure.
The ban was imposed Sunday night by President Maithripala Sirisena under stipulations that came into force with the declaration of emergency measures soon after the blasts that killed over 250 people. The order did not specify any religion but said the ban would cover “any face garment which hinders identification… to ensure national security”.
On Monday morning, among the first to bear the brunt of the ban were members of a Muslim family — a mother and her two daughters — who had reached the Maharagama government cancer hospital in Colombo from Trincomalee. “We were not covering our faces, only our heads with scarves. But security personnel at the hospital forced us to remove that, too. When we objected, they said that there is no justification to wear that anymore,” the mother told The Indian Express, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Explained | Lifting the veil in Sri Lanka
When contacted, a senior police officer said: “At this time, this is how we can ensure that they continue to live in this country safely.”
The ban came into place on a day when officials confirmed that Sirisena had made two key changes in the security set-up — a new police chief and defence secretary. The President had flagged the move in a televised address last week after acknowledging that early warnings about the attacks had gone unheeded.
Monday was also marked by an alert of “another wave of attacks”, with police citing information that “persons dressed in military uniforms and using a van could be involved”. Sharmila Seyyid, a Tamil writer and activist based in Colombo, said the government’s ban is “leading to chaos”. “There were incidents today when men were chasing women wearing face veils and forcefully removing them. The government should specify who can implement the rule — just about anyone or only security personnel,” Seyyid told The Indian Express.
“Many women are upset with the order and refusing to step out of their homes. They cannot think of showing their faces in public. At the same time, who gave the All Ceylon Jamiyathul Ulema (ACJU) the right to agree to such a ban? When they demand, women have to cover their faces and when they decide, we should remove it,” she said.
Seyyid was referring to statements from the Muslim clergy after the blasts permitting women to remove their face veils due to security considerations. On Monday, PTI quoted Fazil Farook, a spokesman for the Jamiyathul Ulema, as saying: “We have permitted people to leave their homes with faces uncovered as means to cooperate with security forces.”
Reuters quoted ACJU assistant manager Farhan Faris as saying: “We have given guidance to the Muslim women to not to cover their faces in this emergency situation… (But) if you make it a law, people will become emotional and this will bring another bad impact … it is their religious right.”
Speaking to The Indian Express over phone from Kandy, Meriam, 25, said: “The government has security reasons. But I cannot step out without a face veil, I can’t imagine that. My mother and sisters have all been wearing it for a long time. Showing our faces to strangers is a matter of concern for us.”
Incidentally, a ban on face veils is a longstanding demand of radical Buddhist Sinhala groups. Speaking to The Indian Express, Dilanthe Withanage of the Bodu Bala Sena, a radical Buddhist organisation linked to anti-minority riots in 2014, said: “The ban has to be in place not only under emergency rules but also under normal rules as such practices are a threat to national security. A majority of Muslim leaders and organisations support the President’s decision.”