The proposal to ban the burqa: What do you think?
2 years ago
Sri Lanka’s Minister of Public Security Rear Admiral (Retd.) Dr. Sarath Weerasekara, on 12 March, said he was seeking cabinet approval to ban burqas – the garment worn by some Muslim women covering the body and face – stating that the decision was made due to the direct impact of burqas on national security. The announcement followed much criticism. Consequently, a Pakistani diplomat and a United Nations (UN) expert expressed concern about the possible ban, with Pakistani Ambassador Saad Khattak saying a ban would only injure the feelings of Muslims. He tweeted: “(The ban will) only serve as injury to the feelings of ordinary Sri Lankan Muslims and Muslims across the globe.” UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief Ahmed Shaheed tweeted that a ban was “incompatible with international law” and the rights of free religious expression. Since then, however, Government Spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella last Tuesday (16) stated a ban was a serious decision requiring consultation and consensus. “It will be done in consultation. So, it requires time,” he said at the weekly media briefing held to announce the cabinet decisions. The wearing of burqas in Sri Lanka was temporarily banned in 2019 soon after the Easter Sunday bomb attacks on churches and hotels that killed more than 260 people in the island, and the ban has since been lifted. We reached out to some notable members of the community to share with us their thoughts on the matter and how the potential ban may be perceived and affect the larger religious community. Former Mayor of Colombo, former Saudi Arabia Ambassador, and present Muslim Council of Sri Lanka Chairman Mohamed Hussain Mohamed shared his thoughts, stating that firstly in Sri Lanka, what Muslim women wear is not the burqa. “What they wear is the hijab. The Minister cannot say they are banning the burqa; that would entail the entirety of the head gear.” Most notably, however, he said that this is indeed an infringement of the Muslim woman’s fundamental rights. He said that as the current Chairman of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka, he sees many countries questioning this new proposal, as it is extremely unorthodox and without reason. He added also that there are far more concerning and pressing issues that the Government must address, and yet they chose to target one minority in the country. This will result in them losing favour with that group, which is very much a part of the Lankan societal ecosystem. Umar Yoosuf, an Imam from Dehiwala, shared that while the burqa or the niqab is part of the faith, the religion allows flexibility in that aspect. It is supposed to be a caring faith, he said, adding that if their actions are causing intimidation, then the faith directs that one takes action to remedy this. He added also that wearing the covering is optional for women of the faith; no one is allowed to force it upon women. However, the Imam said that by global and international standards, it is not a good sign for Sri Lanka to take that choice away from women of the Islamic faith. When you ban something targeting a particular group of persons, it clearly indicates discrimination, he said, adding that if there is a decision to be made to not wear the niqab or burqa, then it should come from within the community; a decision made by those within and not external forces and then enforced upon them. The Imam also shared information from a report he compiled on the request of the All Ceylon Jammiyyathul Ulama (ACJU) to be submitted to the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka and the Justice Minister, arguing to not sign the cabinet memorandum which suggests the banning of the face veil. In the report, it is stated that face veils are sometimes argued to be a cultural aspect certain fragments of the community follow. The UDHR (Universal Declaration of Human Rights) also in its Article 27 states that “everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts, and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits”. Cultural rights are, therefore, inseparable from human rights, as recognised in Article 5 of the 2001 UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation) Declaration on Cultural Diversity, and can be defined as the right of access to, participation in, and enjoyment of culture. This includes the right to freedom of expression. Furthermore, providing that even in the context where limitations can be prescribed by law to protect public safety, a committee appointed by the United Nations (UN) rejected the arguments presented by France when they implemented a face veil ban in 2010 and argued that the ban was necessary for “social cohesion” and for security reasons. The UN body found that the law could have the opposite effect as it would lead to “confining them to their homes, impeding their access to public services, and marginalising them”. Similar sentiments were shared by Attorney-at-Law Ermiza Tegal, who said: “The proposal to ban the burqa represents irresponsible policymaking, as there is no evidence that the burqa is a threat to national security. What is worse, the very proposal of such a policy deliberately and unfairly targets Muslim women. Past experiences, particularly the banning of the face cover after the terrorist attack in April 2019, provide ample evidence of such measures causing harm and restricting the freedoms of ordinary Muslim women, including the freedom of movement, freedom to engage in employment, freedom to pursue education, and even the freedom to seek assistance from the State. If this ban is enacted, the right of Muslim women citizens to live without fear in this country will be irreparably affected.” To distract from pressing issues In addition to the clear elements of discrimination, other members of the community shared that these decisions that may be thought of as “scandalous” and at times “ludicrous” are brought forth to distract the public from the ongoing economic crisis we are suffering from. Al Muslimaath – a charitable NGO (nongovernmental organisation) and developmental organisation – Founder/President and Project Co-ordinator Dr. Mareena Thaha Reffai shared her thoughts, stating that the proposal is simply “hilarious”. She said: “There has been no single case of terrorist activity where a suicide bomber wore a burqa and set off a bomb. More often than not, those whom are brainwashed and induced into suicide bombing want to be recognised. They will look directly at a security camera and make sure they are identified and that they are remembered and revered as a hero for their cause.” She also said: “At present, how is the burqa posing a security threat? Is everyone not wearing a burqa at this point? Even the President himself is wearing a mask on a daily basis. And if covering the face is the concern, it can be done in many ways. A helmet can obstruct the view of the face; even a t-shirt with a hood up can conceal someone’s identity.” She commented that all over the world, there are security threats posed by various factors and yet never have we heard this approach of banning the burqa. She said that while she herself does not choose to wear one, the choice of a Muslim woman who wishes to wear it, is hers and hers alone. Dr. Reffai also said that from the inconsistency shown by the governing side, with the initial announcement being retracted, it can be seen that these are merely gimmicks employed to distract the general public. The people are easily side-tracked by the most recent scandal and from the more burning issues in the island like the cost of living skyrocketing; if we are not arguing about burqas, we are debating about burials. All the while, the prices of onions and petrol are increasing.