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Sri Lanka's Proposed Face Veil Ban Sparks Anger and Disappointment

*Names have been changed to protect their identity.

Sri Lanka’s minority Muslim community is increasingly feeling the heat from its government as it continues to throw challenge after challenge against the community. Today, they are targeting Muslim women and their traditional attire.

The Rajapaksa-led government’s proposal to ban the controversial face veil on grounds of national security  has sparked both anger and disappointment amongst the community. Especially so from women who wear the veil for religious modesty reasons. Many believe that the stated ‘national security’ reasoning is merely a ruse to further penalize Muslims who make up to nearly 10% of the country’s 21 million population in the predominantly Buddhist country.

Faheema* a teacher who lives in Sri Lanka’s southern town of Galle, some 150 kilometres from the capital of Colombo, insists that the decision to wear the niqab was a personal choice she made  for her own protection. She says she feels it limits the number of prying eyes looking at her, especially when she has to walk alone.

“They claim that the decision to ban the niqab or burqa is due to security reasons, but I personally feel this is baseless because none of the suicide bombers who carried out the Easter Sunday Attacks wore the niqab or burqa,” she said.

April 2019 saw the  deadly Easter Sunday attacks  carried out by extremists killing over 250 people. Soon after, the previous government under ex-President Maithripala Sirisena, banned the face veil temporarily citing security reasons. The ban was later lifted.

Recalling that decision, Faheema said that she did not wear the niqab then as it was the country’s rule, and she does not plan to  go against such a rule now because that is not what Islam has taught her. “But, if the proposed ban is implemented by this government, I will no longer feel safe. I will have no option but to remove my veil which is a sign of my modesty,” she added.

For nearly a decade, Sri Lanka’s minority Muslim community have been increasingly finding themselves at the receiving end of Islamophobia, discrimination and violence. In 2013, a campaign against halal food was launched by the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), a Buddhist monk-led Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist organization which was accused of having close ties to the then government under former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is the eldest brother of incumbent president Gotabaya Rajapaksa. 

In 2014, the BBS was again accused of launching attacks against Muslims  in the coastal town of Aluthgama and then again in 2018 in the Central Kandy district. These attacks  resulted in the loss of several lives as well as destruction to businesses and homes of Muslims.

In more recent times, the current administration faced severe criticism over its decision to forcefully cremate all COVID-19 victims, including Muslims. Ceremonial burial is an extremely significant Islamic right that was denied to hundreds of Muslim family members in Sri Lanka. The policy also went against World Health Organization regulations, which permitted burials of those lost to COVID-19.

Hilmy Ahamed, Vice President of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka, an umbrella organization of Muslim civil society groups, said that the Muslims in Sri Lanka feel that there is continuous harassment and hate against them. “Many live in fear, feel lost, discriminated against and feel as if they are not treated as rightful citizens in Sri Lanka,” he said.

Ahmed also said that the government’s rush to ban the niqab and burqa was quite hypocritical given that the world, including Sri Lanka is in the middle of fighting a global pandemic and wearing a face mask is at present mandatory here  by law. He said that this proposal could be  an attempt by the government to divert the attention of the majority Buddhist community from the escalating cost of living and day to day survival struggles due to the collapse of governance and economy.

Rumana*is a stay-at-home mum from Colombo who aspires to study further and become a businesswoman. She says that as a citizen, she will abide by the government’s decision, but she feels betrayed by the proposed ban.

“I have always been a loyal citizen of Sri Lanka and the niqab for me is my freedom because I feel protected and I feel confident when I wear it. It was a choice I made on my own at the age of 14,” Rumana said.

She said that the ban will be like her wings have been cut off.

“I have been  wearing it almost all my life and depriving me of my choice of dress will cause more harm to me. I fear that I will not be able to achieve my dreams as I will prefer staying indoors and do only what is necessary if I have to stop wearing it.”

Rumana says that the niqab ban is merely a cover up for a weak security system.

“If the government is confident of their security and intelligence, then this ban is not needed. The Easter attack was all carried out by men, then why punish women for it? Why are women the prey for what men do?" she asked.

Shreen Saroor, a women’s rights activist highlighted that the proposed ban breaches the fundamental right enshrined in the Sri Lankan Constitution for Muslim women.

“Article 10 & 14 (1) e of our constitution guarantees religious freedom and its manifestations. Hence, it is our fundamental right. We women should decide whether we wear the Burqa/Niqab or not and even Muslim men do not have the right to tell us what we should wear or not wear,” she said.

She insisted that the government’s decision is part of a pure Islamophobic reaction and manifestation of the majoritarian mindset that refuses to think that Muslims are equal citizens of this country.

“Oftentimes men play their politics on women's bodies, and it is part of that patriarchal manifestation," Saroor said. “The irony is that these are men who often shout loud about Muslim women being oppressed by their community men; but in order to collectively punish the Muslim community their first target is the very "oppressed" women and taking away their liberty and choice of a dress code that they associate with modesty and piety."