Nadeesha* has worn a burqa for 15 years, and the abaya for twice as long. Last week, when she heard that a ban on face-covering was in place, she knew there was a difficult time ahead. “This is a lovely country, it is my country. It has been a paradise on earth, and we have practised our religion freely,” she said, her voice catching. “We are so sad about what happened, I feel like crying. It is uncomfortable but we will adjust to the country’s law.”
Nadeesha is talking about a gazette notification which was issued on April 29 under Emergency regulations which banned all “full face” coverings in public spaces including roads, public transport and buildings. Authorities said it was implemented in order to enable easy identification as they attempt to disband a network of terrorists who carried out the Easter Sunday attacks. The law should enable security forces to better monitor terrorist movements, identify suspects and track risks in public spaces.
However, in the wake of the gazette fierce debates rage. Though it did not specifically name the niqab or burqa, it is clear the ban will adversely affect some Muslim women. Arkam Nooramit, an Executive Council member of All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (ACJU) said that even though it brought clear challenges, Muslims were embracing non-violence and non-provocation and would accept it as the need of the hour.
“As the minority we must not disturb the majority’s culture and thinking, while preserving our own culture and preserving our rights. That balance has to be struck, and that can only happen by engaging both sides,” he added, explaining that the ACJU was encouraging all Muslims to be as open and cooperative as possible and not isolate themselves.
However, while few would quibble with the need for greater watchfulness, critics are worried that the “burqa ban” conflates conservatism with extremism in way that risks the safety of women and could feed tensions between communities. Simultaneously, there are heated debates ongoing within the Muslim community itself on whether the garment represents their Sri Lankan identity, with some even calling for the ban to be made permanent. Subsuming all these concerns is the pressing one of ensuring national security.
For clarification, a hijab is a veil which usually covers the head and chest while a niqab is a veil that covers the face. A burqa is a one-piece veil that covers the face and body, often leaving just a mesh screen to see through.
For those critical of the ban, a key part of the problem has been how it served to reinforce issues already existing in the community, such as the side-lining of women’s voices. In particular, activists such as Shreen Saroor who founded the Mannar Women’s Development Federation (MWDF) are questioning why the authorities opted to consult with only the ACJU which has no women in its leadership and has previously issued fatwas declaring that Muslim women should conceal their faces in public. “The ACJU is part of the problem,” Shreen contends, arguing that the conservative group does not represent all Muslims in this country.
“I see the ban as such a deflection of what really needs to happen,” Ermiza Tegal, an attorney-at-law, told the Sunday Times. Noting that Muslim women have been fighting within their community for change on issues including reforming the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act, Ermiza said: “We have confronted violence, discrimination and oppression, and in the midst of this terrible tragedy, to see the opportunity being taken to reinforce all that again without taking women into consideration…This is an extremely short-sighted and knee-jerk response by the State.”
Speaking on behalf of the ACJU, Arkam acknowledged these concerns. “We have met many women’s organizations,” he explained, adding that they were aware of the issues raised by the latter. “We know we have to work on it and get their consensus in this matter. We have to engage with women on this,” he said.
Meanwhile, online many Muslim women have come forward to dismiss the garment as a foreign import alongside Wahabism. Some like Shreen will admit readily that they are not big fans of the burqa.
“Our grandmothers did not wear this and we lived amicably with other communities,” Shreen points out. She says that the community can no longer evade a self-reckoning. “We have come to this stage not because terrorism came from the outside, but because we let it grow,” she says holding leaders and politicians accountable for ignoring the warning signs. However while urgent action is called for, she strongly believes meaningful change cannot be legislated and should instead come as a result of dialogue. To ignore this is to marginalize Muslim women, already among the most vulnerable groups in Sri Lanka, even further, Shreen warns.
“You have to understand that some of these women have been wearing the burqa since they were 13 years old. For them to show their face is now like being asked to show their private parts.” Shreen describes a conversation in which one woman told her that being asked to leave off the burqa was like being asked to walk down the street without a blouse. “It is a profound humiliation,” she says.
Reports of covered women being bullied on the street and turned away from places like supermarkets have fuelled concern that the ban makes targets of conservative Muslim women by cementing a connection to terrorism in the minds of the public, increasing the likelihood of women facing harassment and adding to the atmosphere of fear in the country even after the ban is lifted.
“Emergency laws have a tendency to outstay their welcome,” Ermiza notes, emphasising that these should be reviewed periodically to ensure that they are still essential and are not being misused. Her deep worry is that this will be the excuse to deprive women in already conservative homes of their rights and that the ban allows those with pre-existing agendas to further curtail the freedoms of women.
“The ban is serving to reinforce the sense of alienation at a moment in time when we are trying to send out a message of unity, when we are trying to reach out to each other and say we are of one country, we have to find some way to respond to this catastrophe together,” says Ermiza. “Sadly, the message just seems to have gone the other way on this one.”
In the end, for those working on these issues, there is an acknowledgement that this is a complex challenge that requires nuance and sensitivity, both of which can be extraordinarily hard to muster in the face of the violence and terror Sri Lanka has had to contend with in the recent weeks. However, they feel that at a time when the public is justifiably scared and on edge, the State has an even greater responsibility to ensure that all citizens feel safe.
Published in the Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on May 5, 2019. By Smriti Daniel