A week after the Easter Sunday bombings that have been claimed by ISIS, Sri Lanka has effectively banned the niqab, the face covering worn by some Muslim women. The ban order did not specify the face garment by name, nor did it single out any religious or ethnic group. Sri Lanka is possibly the only country in Asia — which has many countries with significant Muslim populations, as well as three Islamic nations, Indonesia, Pakistan and Bangladesh — to pass such an order, and has joined several European nations in taking this step.

Which countries have banned earlier?
The niqab is currently banned in France and Belgium (since 2011), Austria (since 2017), Denmark (since 2018). The Netherlands has a partial ban on wearing any kind of face cover in public transport, schools and hospitals. In Germany, the niqab is banned while driving. The full face veil is banned in Quebec in Canada, and in Barcelona in Spain.

In October 2018, the UN Human Rights Committee declared that France’s ban disproportionately harmed the right of women to manifest their religious beliefs, and could have the effects of “confining them to their homes, impeding their access to public services and marginalising them”. But the French ban on the niqab continues.

Order passed in Sri Lanka
In Sri Lanka, the order was announced on April 28 by President Maithripala Sirisena. The President’s website said “steps” had been taken to ban from April 29 “all forms of face covers that may hinder one’s identity been ascertained, as a threat to national security and public safety”.

The order said “this directive specifies the need for one’s face been clearly visible for ascertaining their identify as the its main criterion”, and that the President had issued this directive “to ensure national security and a peaceful and reconciled society, where no ethnic group or community would be subjected to discomfort”.

What was strange about the order?
The order appears to have taken the Sri Lankan Muslim community by surprise, as they had been earlier given to believe that community leaders should take the lead in this matter, rather than the government bringing a rule or law.

Muslims in Sri Lanka
Muslims constitute less than 10% of Sri Lanka’s population. While the hijab and burqa have become common apparel among Muslim, the niqab not so much.

Shaken by the Easter terror attacks, community leaders had already asked women to stop wearing the niqab in the “interests of national security”. Despite facing the wrath of the LTTE during the civil war years, and post-war, violence by Buddhist extremist groups, the community is socially, economically and politically mainstream. Predominantly traders, Muslims are well educated and upwardly mobile.

After last week’s carnage, many Muslims fear they will be the “new Tamils” of Sri Lanka, with every Muslim becoming a suspect, just as every Tamil had become during the war against the LTTE.

 (Adapted from The Indian Express)