Photograph courtesy The Agenda

My name is Fathima Sahar, a first year student at the Faculty of Architecture at the University of Moratuwa. I am one of three students who are affected by the ban on the niqab by the University.

I thought of writing this because our side of story has been literally ‘veiled’ away from the public. The media that reported the issue only spoke to the University authorities and did not contact us. The University too, that is so eager to see our faces did not want to hear our voices, ideas and thoughts. Before they decided to ban the niqab – the University did not trouble itself to give us a hearing, to discuss, to find a solution to whatever problem they perceived. In that sense, the way we have been treated is no different to the way many of our sisters in many other contexts are treated. Women and their voices are hardly allowed to be heard but kept muted and suppressed. And in that sense at least, I feel it is my duty to speak up and speak out.

I was born in a refugee camp. My parents are from Mannar and were victims of the ethnic cleansing of the Northern Muslims by the LTTE in 1990. Like most refugee students I saw a University education as a passport to a better future and a means for empowerment to fight against the type of injustices that my parents suffered. So my journey from Puttalam to Moratuwa was hard and difficult yet it was inspired by the hope of something better.

The niqab was never an issue for the University of Moratuwa. I was not the first student to wear it. A few years ago the University had its first niqabi enrol and complete her studies and graduate – without hindrance. One other student who is affected by this decision started wearing it in September 2011. She has been banned from wearing the niqab after two years of wearing it – without a problem. Why is this happening now? Did something happen? Or is this a reflection of the changed socio-political context in which Muslims live? Is this a reflection on the diminishing scope of our rights?

When I entered the University of Moratuwa I truly felt proud and happy to be in a place of diverse cultures and identities and yet free to be who we are. This is I thought was what a university experience was all about.

In March 2013 the Bodu Bala Sena announced the end of its campaign against the ‘Halaal logo’. It was at that time that it also announced the start of a new campaign. This time it was going to be a campaign against the attire of Muslim women – the hijab and the niqab. The niqab which for several years had been a non-issue at the University of Moratuwa became an issue for the first time in July 2013.

I was pulled up by a professor during a lecture where he scolded me and told me I cannot wear the niqab as it was contrary to the ‘discipline’ of the University. But in July 2013 I did not want the attention and I really needed to get my degree. So I co-operated. I removed my niqab during lectures and in any case at security points I was already removing my niqab and identifying myself to the female security officers there before entry into the university.

On August 01, 2013, when I tried to enter the University I was stopped at the gate by the Security Personnel who stated that the Vice Chancellor has ordered them to not to allow me inside. So it was not I who made the request to be permitted to wear the niqab – but it was the Vice Chancellor and the University authorities who stopped me. To the media it was stated that I made the request – which is not correct. What more I have not ‘accepted’ the decision – which is also what was incorrectly told to the press.

Having been stopped at the gate on August 01, 2013 and after discussing with my colleagues etc I lodged a formal appeal to the Vice Chancellor. The Vice Chancellor by letter dated October 11, 2013 informed me that the matter is to be decided by the Senate and the Board of Residence and Discipline and that I will be informed of their decision. Until such time he stated in his letter that I will be permitted to attend University. I was thrilled. Looking back I feel it was just a game to brush the issue under the carpet – at least until the CHOGM was over.

However despite the Vice Chancellor’s letter the security refused entry as they had not been independently informed. So I awaited a response from the University. Although I heard that a decision had been made – I received no formal intimation. So I went to the University on November 24th, 2013. Again I was stopped at the gate. Only then was I informed that the Senate has decided to ban the niqab. On my request a copy of the letter that was supposed to have been sent to me was despatched and I received that letter on December 04th, 2013.

The reason they have stated in the decision is one of security although initially it was framed as being a matter of discipline and ‘dress code’. Banning the niqab has certainly not made the University of Moratuwa – any safer than it was. In fact now it has become a place of oppression and suppression. The security reasons are not genuine and they don’t make sense at all. Our universities have seen a lot of violence – in that backdrop – three girls in a niqab in such a large university is hardly a security concern.

The letter says that ‘students are required to keep their faces open while being in the premises’. Why? Is the University watching us all the time? I am willing to show my face for security, at examinations but during other times am I not entitled to decide how much of myself I show and share with the rest?

There is an important debate going on – all over the world – about women and their attire and how they identify themselves. A recent survey has revealed that ‘Three quarters of girls and young women aged 11 to 21 said sexism affects most areas of their lives, with many subject to sexual taunting or being at the receiving end of sexist jokes at school, while nine in 10 think women are judged more for their looks than their ability’.

My attire offers an alternative – an alternative that demands that I be judged for who I am than for how I look. The University and its Senate may not agree with this. But certainly I am ready for the debate but the Senate has run-away from it and banned the niqab altogether – even without a proper hearing. Certainly that is not something that a University should do.

Finally I don’t wear the niqab because some dominant male has forced me to. In fact ever since this issue started most of the males in my family and neighbourhood have asked me to give this up for my studies. The niqab is not act of subjugation or subordination. Certainly not for me. It takes a lot of courage to wear it and go out in the world, to deal with the attention and the scorn. But it is that same courage that helps me stand up and assert my rights even against my own University.