"The ban is to ensure national security... No one should obscure their faces to make identification difficult," a statement from President Maithripala Sirisena said on Sunday.
On April 21, an Easter Sunday, Sri Lanka was attacked by suicide bombers which claimed the lives of as many as 250 innocent people. Now, President Maithripala Sirisena is coming forward with an emergency law to impose restrictions on covering the face with garments. According to BBC, any face garment which "hinders identification" is banned. "The ban is to ensure national security... No one should obscure their faces to make identification difficult," a statement from President Maithripala Sirisena said on Sunday. The burqa and niqab worn by Muslim women were not specifically mentioned, but there has been a lot of criticization from Muslim leaders as only 10 percent out of the 21 million people in Sri Lanka are Muslims. The emergency law is perceived to be targetting these garments, specifically.
Out of the 10 percent, only a small number of women actually use the niqab ( a garment used to cover the face) or a burqa ( a garment worn to cover the entire body). A Sri Lankan MP also proposed to ban burqas completely, claiming it should be outlawed for security reasons. This emergency law has not gone down too well with Muslim groups. "It is the stupidest thing to do. Three days ago we [the Muslim community] took a voluntary decision regarding this," said Hilmy Ahmed, vice-president of the Sri Lanka Muslim Council.
"The All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulema told all Muslim women not to wear face veils for security reasons. If they wanted to wear a veil, then they were told not to come out. We see this as a reflection of the conflict between the president and the prime minister. We strongly criticize the decision. We will not accept the authorities interfering with the religion without consulting the religious leadership," added Ahmed.
According to Al Jazeera, the law saw activists saying the move "violated Muslim women's right to practice their religion freely". Sheikh Arkam Nooramith from ACJU said, "We had asked that we are given some more time, and whatever concerns that the ministry has – with regards [to] what is possible within religious norms we will guide the Muslim community." People had mixed opinions about the law, with some saying it would be a good idea to impose it, while others thought it was invading into their religion.
"While I understand that there is a difference in scholarly opinion about the wearing of the face veil, I made the choice to wear the niqab 16 years ago and asking me to unveil now is like asking to strip me of my identity. Looking at the larger picture and the purpose with which I want to live my life, staying home is not an option for me, and I am trying to figure out a way around this," said Qaanita Razeek, co-founder of Soup Kitchen Sri Lanka.
"The banning of the burqa/niqab is to be welcomed especially if this marks a shift in Sri Lankan society towards a more secular ethos. If the banning is motivated by hate, it would have a very negative impact especially on the Muslim community in the long-term. Security cannot be enhanced merely by banning the burqa/niqab. It has to be linked to the broader objective of the secularisation of Sri Lankan society, which in turn requires other ethnic and religious groups, including the Sinhala Buddhist majority, to rethink and reform their own communities in more progressive and pluralist ways," said Kalana Senaratne, senior lecturer, Department of Law, University of Peradeniya.
Sri Lanka is not the first country to impose a 'Burqa Ban'. Telegraph reports that France was the first European country to impose the ban. It was initially started in 2004 when students in state-run schools were prohibited from displaying any form of religious symbol. Later, in 2011, the government imposed a public ban on full-face veils. The then President Nicolas Sarkozy said they were “not welcome” in France. Women who break the rule will be fined 150 euros, and anyone who forces a woman to cover her face will face a fine of 3000 euros.
Belgium soon followed France and imposed the ban in 2011. The law states no clothing that obscures people's places in public places can be worn. If a woman is caught wearing a veil, they can be fined up to seven years, or forced to pay a 1378 euro fine. The Netherlands, in 2015, passed a partial law that states women cannot have their faces covered in schools, hospitals and on public transport. Basically, it does not insist on a public ban, but only in "specific situations where it is essential for people to be seen" or for security reasons.
Italy, Spain, Chad, Cameroon, Niger, Congo-Brazzaville, Turkey and Switzerland are some of the other countries to implement a full or partial ban on the burqa. Several reports say the burqa appears to have originated in Persia in the 10th century, before slowly spreading to the Arabian Peninsula and present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan. The garment in itself a misogynistic tool to oppress Muslim women. But while the burqa and niqab are originally oppressive, does it give governments the right to violate women's right to wear them?