Ban on Veils for ‘Public Safety’: Presidential Order post-Easter Attacks in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka has banned face-covering garments for security purposes after the Easter attack from today. Invoking an emergency law, President Maithripala Sirisena issued an order saying, “Any face garment which hinders identification will be banned to ensure national security.” The ghastly attack on Easter morning, April 21st, on eight locations – churches and luxurious hotels, killed around 253 people and injured more than 500.

Sri Lanka
Indonesian Muslim student shows solidarity with victims of Sri Lankan bombings ( AFP )

Though the decree doesn’t explicitly state a ban on burqas or niqabs, the order clearly prohibits wearing any ‘face covering garment.’ This comes a few days after MP Ashu Marasinghe had submitted a private members’ motion to demand a ban on wearing burqa citing that it “was not a traditional Muslim attire” and thus should be outlawed on security grounds. The government delayed the decision on the advice of the Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe who advised that the opinions of the Islamic clerics should be taken into consideration. Notably, Muslims form only 10% of Sri Lanka’s 21 million population and  very few women there wear veils.

All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (ACJU), an organisation of Muslim clerics, issued an order  asking women to avoid covering their faces with a niqab so security forces aren’t hindered in their efforts to maintain national security. “We have given guidance to the Muslim women to not cover their faces in this emergency situation,” ACJU assistant manager Farhan Faris said.

While the clerics and a portion of the Muslim population have agreed to comply with the presidential order, some have considered this as an anti-Islamic move. Owais Ibrahim, a Muslim shopkeeper, said he supported the ban on face covering for security reasons. “If it is not allowed it is not a problem. If we are living in Sri Lanka, we must respect their rules,” Ibrahim stated.

However, there are concerns within the Muslim community that a prolonged ban could fuel tensions in the religiously-diverse nation. A nation that emerged from a civil war with ethnic minority Tamil separatists, a decade ago. The Human Rights Watch, an international NGO, has condemned the ban. “That needless restriction means that Muslim women whose practice leads them to cover up now won’t be able to leave home,” the group’s executive director Kenneth Roth tweeted.

Reportedly, 150 people in connection with this nightmarish bloodshed have been arrested till now and the authorities are now hunting for around 140 followers of the jihadist group, Islamic State (IS) which has claimed responsibility for the attack and identified three militants – Abu Hammad, Abu Sufyan and Abu al-Qa’qa.  

The father and two brothers of Zahran Hashim, founder of an Islamist group National Towheed Jamaat (NTJ), which allegedly was behind the attacks, were killed in an operation by the security forces. Zahran and others wearing masks, had pledged their loyalty to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi before carrying out the attacks.

Many countries all over the world have banned wearing of veils either for liberating women from this rigid patriarchal norm or owing to some suicide attacks by people wearing veils like in the Chad and Cameroon attack. Astonishingly, in case of non-compliance of this order, the women are subjected to fine or even a jail term in different countries! However, such bans bring back the debate on religious freedom versus national security. It further links terror to one particular religious group thereby strengthening the Islamophobia which is already prevalent all over the world. Regrettably, what gets left behind in this entire discourse is a woman’s individual choice. Women have always been subjected to imposition of orders either by their husbands, fathers, other senior male figures or by the ‘paternalistic’ state. Further, the relation between banning veils and reduction in terror, is yet to be verified. This is not to say that veils are justified.

It is a known fact that veils are mostly forced on Muslim women by Muslim men; very few women wear it out of choice and that choice should be defended and respected. Even if  veils aren’t forced, young girls as little as five are made to wear them as a part of their culture and a ‘sign of modesty’. Eventually, they consider it as a part of their life and continue to wear it without ever questioning the existence of such a patriarchal custom.

Making laws against the wearing of niqabs or burqas will never help; not even for curbing terrorism. But to defend them as a religious and cultural marker of Muslim culture is simply erroneous to say the least. We need to make a distinction between Islam which is a system of ideas and Muslims as flesh and blood people. There is a thin line between religious freedom and women’s subversion and neither the state nor its citizens should cross this line.

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