Sri Lanka’s veil threat: Formal ban on covering faces in public enforced

Having hinted at it earlier, Sri Lankan authorities formally announced a ban on wearing face veils or niqabs in public starting Monday, April 29, eight days after the suicide bombings on Easter Sunday left 250 dead.

The latest government directive bans all face garments that hinder identification, in order to ensure safety, as the police are still tracking down militants behind the bombings. President Maithripala Sirisena said he is imposing the restriction using an emergency law already in place. However, it makes no specific mention of the burqa (full-body garment) that Muslim women wear.

Meanwhile, the island nation remains on high alert after Islamist radical group National Towheeth Jama’ath was found to have carried out the coordinated bombings. The Islamic State (ISIS), too, claimed responsibility for the plot, which shook the relative peace of Sri Lanka 10 years after a bloody civil war.

Read more: Sri Lanka bombing: ISIS claims responsibility, even as probe continues. Here’s more

Xenophobia in the name of national security

Efforts to outlaw Muslim headwear are decried all over the world, and the response has not been very different in Sri Lanka’s case. Hilmy Ahmed of the Sri Lanka Muslim Council told the media that a decision to temporarily suspend wearing face veils was taken voluntarily by the community itself.

Indian Express reported that local Muslim clerics urged their women not to cover their faces amid escalating fears of a backlash after the blast. It would also make the search for fugitive militants easier, as the police have also engaged locals to help locate some of the elusive ones.

So the criminalisation of the veil is being seen as unnecessary, especially when Muslims are willing to cooperate.

Why Sri Lanka did what it did

The ban comes a week after Sri Lankan MP Ashu Marasinghe proposed it, saying that the body and face-covering burqa should be outlawed on security grounds. Marasinghe, in his petition, submitted that the burqa was “not a traditional Muslim attire”.

Cabinet discussions followed after a delay, as the government reportedly tried seeking consensus on the matter with Islamic clerics, on Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s advice.

The move can be regarded as a populist one at this point because Sirisena’s government has come under severe attack for orchestrating the political gridlock, which kept key security information from Wickremesinghe; it is believed to have percolated into a state of military disorganisation and intelligence failure that led to the April 21 bombings.

Ahmed agrees, telling the BBC, “We see this as a reflection of the conflict between the president and the prime minister. We strongly criticise the decision. We will not accept the authorities interfering with the religion without consulting the religious leadership.”

Despite detaining over a hundred suspects already (48 were arrested in the last 24 hours), the government has received warnings from local as well as international agencies that more militants are still at large and further explosions may be in the offing.

As everyone blames the government for failing to warn or pre-empt the bombings, and with the entire country on edge, it is most convenient to cash in on the surging animosity for Sri Lankan Muslims and cite national security as the reason for the veil ban.

Read more: India factor in Sri Lanka bombings: Why authorities failed to act on warnings

Ahmadi Muslims, who form 10% of the country’s population, have already complained of retaliation from Christians, increasingly so after the police released the names and pictures of the suspects involved. Most Muslims in Sri Lanka practise a liberal form of Islam, which does not require women to don a full-face veil. There is reason to believe that it may even end up pushing more Muslims to extremism.

What’s behind the ‘veiled’ political attempt?

Targeting clothing is more than an attack on the community’s culture, but it also has xenophobic undertones, betraying and condoning intolerance for visible religious symbology. The movement to limit women wearing headscarves, especially Muslim women, has been growing in Europe over the last decade. The driving force behind politicising the veil lies in the othering of foreign cultures.

The past few years have seen the legalisation of the burqa ban in several countries with a sizeable Muslim population and powerful anti-immigration right-wing governments; the UK, France, Belgium, Norway, Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands are all against the covering of faces in varying degrees. While some have a uniform national policy, others impose specific restrictions.

Closer home, in China, the marginalised Uighur Muslims are prohibited from keeping long beards or wearing veils. But unlike the Chinese Communist Party, which bans workers in public spaces, such as stations and airports, from fully covering their bodies and faces, and expects employers to report on deviants to the police, the penalty for violations in Sri Lanka is not clear yet.

Veil as a contested site of gender controversy

Sometimes, popular antagonism towards Muslim veils in Europe rooted in an exclusionary ‘enlightenment liberalism’. “These clothes prevent good communication, which is important for students to receive a good education,” said Norway’s education minister on the veil ban for Muslim students and employees.

The immigration minister echoed, “Clothes covering the face, like the niqab and the burqa, have no place in Norwegian schools. It is a fundamental value to be able to communicate with each other.” 

But the veil, which is so often a predictor and tool to perpetuate social bias, can also serve as a symbol for unification, inclusion, and solidarity. Muslim women in the US, for example, “come to rely on Islamic women’s friendship networks that form around the veil”.

This recognition has been followed by several attempts to normalise and destigmatise the look, as representation of women in hijabs in pop culture, fashion, television, and commercials has admittedly grown, without tokenising or misappropriating the tradition. We are now seeing politicians, businesswomen, television reporters, and other successful hijabi women in visible roles and that is the message we need to be sending.

Nike came out with its burkini line after the infamous controversy over a woman wearing one at the French seaside. Following Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s lead, many women (non-Muslims) of New Zealand expressed their solidarity with the survivors of the Christchurch mosque massacre by wearing hijabs themselves; it was the first time the headscarf was used to condemn Islamophobic terrorism. Recently, an iconic image of a Muslim woman in a headscarf photobombing an anti-Islam demonstration went viral.

Still, as an identity marker for Muslim women, the veil remains a highly contested site for feminist debate. Studies have suggested that those with strong secular beliefs often critique religious practices, such as veiling, circumcision, and the ritual slaughtering of animals, not necessarily because of racial stereotypes or profiles attached to these constructs, but because they reflect cultures that support extreme submission to religion and, therefore, do not allow individuals to hold secular values.

Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius

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