Ban on veils in Sri Lanka sparks concern

Updated - April 30, 2019 12:37 am IST

Published - April 30, 2019 12:35 am IST - Colombo

Sri Lanka has banned veils citing “security” reasons following Easter attacks, but the decision has sparked a host of concerns within the Muslim community. President Maithripala Sirisena said that the ban, being brought under emergency law, was in the interest of national security and public safety, so that individuals were easily identifiable.

In this instance, “face veils”, Sri Lankan activists note, imply burqa s that some Sri Lankan Muslim women wear, though the official announcement doesn’t name the attire specifically. The announcement comes a week after serial explosions, attributed to radical Islamist groups and targeting churches and hotels, shook the country.

The All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (ACJU), the apex religious body of Islamic scholars, has issued a directive to the Muslim community urging members to refrain from wearing the veil. “We were not responding to the government’s ban, we independently reached out to the community keeping in mind the current situation,” said Ash-Sheikh Fazil Farook, ACJU media secretary.

However, what is effectively a burqa ban will have to be seen both in the context of the current moment as well as in the broader context, cautions Mareena Thaha Reffai, founder-president of Al Muslim Aath, a 28-year-old organisation of Muslim Women. A preacher herself, Ms. Reffai said the reference to the burqa in the Koran does not speak of imposition or avoidance. “It is ambiguous and lends itself to varied interpretations. It’s important to understand that.”

The timing of the ban is significant, in her view. “It comes at a time when we are dealing with a national tragedy. Any opportunity to express our solidarity with our Christian brothers and sisters, any chance to show our willingness to cooperate is crucial at this point,” she said, adding it was in that spirit that the ACJU issued the directive. All the same, the possible repercussions of such a move, which some are reading as an attack on civil liberties, is cause of worry, observed Ms. Reffai, especially when there could be political motives driving such decisions.

“The government made a blunder, in underestimating the threat and failing to take precautions. Now they would like to deflect attention to something else, isn’t it?” she said. Moreover, no suspect or suicide bomber was found wearing a burqa , so “there is no direct correlation,” she said.

Despite that, seen in the specific context of the aftermath of the blasts, the ban does not seem unreasonable to her. “At the same time, if there are moves to prevent us from wearing the abaya [full-length dress] or the headscarf, we will surely resist that,” she told The Hindu .

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