Featured image courtesy the Independent

Translated from Tamil by Ambikai Forman

My neighbour, Maya, from a Tamil Christian family, usually attends the mass at St. Anthony’s Church every Sunday. But on Easter Sunday she didn’t attend the mass as her brother had returned home after quite a long time away. A friend of Maya, used to come daily on her scooter to pick Maya’s only son and drop him at school. Both friends also met at least for a short chat during the holidays too. Maya’s friend wears the ‘Abayah’ (the long robe-like dress worn by some Muslim women that covers the body from the shoulders to the toes) – in different colours, and sometimes in black too. The Muslim friend hasn’t been seen after the Easter Sunday incident. When I inquired about her, Maya said sadly, “Aiyo! Poor girl! She hasn’t stepped out of the house from last Sunday. I visited her. She is really scared. You know, she isn’t used to going out without her Abayah? Apparently she feels naked without it and she is scared that if she goes out in her Abayah, it will become an issue. So she is confined to her house. I felt really sorry for her.” As I am also a Muslim woman who wears Shalwar Kameez and covers the head with a shawl, I was able to understand her fear.

I haven’t recovered from the shock of the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks, where innocent lives were taken away. I was confused because to my mind, there aren’t any connections between a Muslim who usually begins any task invoking God, saying ‘Ar-Raheem’ (God, The Most Merciful) and committing murders in the name of Islam. As a Muslim activist who believes deeply in humanity and compassion, the events of the past week – the loss of innocent lives, the security forces putting their lives at risk carrying out their duties, the diabolical groups looking for petty political benefits, the media that is triggering racism through their portrayal of events, and the anxiety and fear of what could happen next – has left me speechless, and unable to carry on with day-to-day life.

On the third day after the Easter Sunday attacks, I needed to go the hospital as I was suffering from a severe stomach-ache. As required by security regulations, I pasted my name and the contact number on my vehicle. The hospital, which is usually filled with Muslim people was different this time – all eyes were on me, as I was the only Muslim as far as I could tell. Though I was aware of the fear that my Hijab had created, I was equally fearful as to whether anything would happen to me. I remained in the toilet for a while as I needed time to calm myself. I was afraid until I reached home. Not only Maya’s friend, but most of the Muslim women I know including myself, who cover our head, who wear the Abayah or the Niqab (a face veil that keeps the eyes clear) or the Burqa (a face veil that includes a mesh cover for the eyes) are still confined to our homes. Some go out amidst fear, and have returned home facing many an incident, other than physical attacks.

Our conversations are about the problems it creates for us, as Muslim women. We are also worried, just like everyone else, about what is going to happen next. I worry about whether my child and I would be killed in a terrorist attack. We, like all Muslims who respect others, rejoice in pluralism and are against terrorism, are angered by the Easter Sunday attacks and feel helpless. Moreover, at this juncture, we too are in deep fear, living as Muslims. Living with the identity of a Muslim woman these days has taken us to another level of fear and terror.

In the aftermath of a tragic Easter Sunday and amidst all the articles and discussions on the question of how to move forward and on national security, there was a voice in the Parliament against the ‘Burqa’ and ‘Niqab’ (types of face cover) of the Muslim women, and for a ban on it, which was immediately approved. While I am immensely saddened about the loss of lives as a result of the Easter Attacks, this article will focus on the ‘Burqa and Niqab’ – a choice of attire which has been politicised these days – in an attempt to express the fear that has engulfed my Muslim sisters and myself.

The ACJU’s preoccupation with women’s clothing

Muslim women in Sri Lanka have been covering their heads for a long time, commonly with the pallu (fall/head-piece) of the sari. The Abayah came much later. Many people say that the open market economy and the return of migrant domestic workers from Arab countries brought in the tradition of the Abayah. The black-coloured Abayahs were more popular among women over the coloured ones for many reasons, such as it being more convenient and cheaper. (The fact that it is now becoming prohibitively expensive is another story!) However, as various ‘Ulemas’ or Islamic preachers suddenly claimed that covering the face is ‘Wajib’ (a mandatory act) and spread ‘Bayans’ (sermons) that women who reveal their faces are ‘prostitutes’, groups of Muslim women started wearing the Burqa/Niqab for various reasons: some by force; some wore it for cultural reasons; others wore it for religious reasons. In some cases, it even gave women access to mobility as it provided more freedom for them to move about in orthodox Muslim villages.

The mastermind behind giving official status to the partially accepted ‘Niqab/Burqa’ in the name of Islam was the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (ACJU). The all-male ACJU made sermons on women’s attire and declared the ‘Fatwa’ (a ruling on Islamic law) that wearing the Abayah is ‘Wajib’ or mandatory.

In 2012 and thereafter, when racism and hatred was unleashed against the Muslims in the country, among the most affected even then were the Muslim women. At that time, the all-male ACJU requested that Muslim women wear coloured Abayahs instead of black ones as black Abayahs were not a pleasant sight for others. Reams of multi-coloured cloth were immediately imported for this purpose. It was the ACJU that declared it mandatory to wear the Burqa/Niqab and spread the propaganda that this was part of the identity of a ‘good’ Muslim woman. As a result of this preaching, the Muslim women of the community who do not cover their head or face are looked down upon. Since various Ulemas repeatedly emphasised this idea, many families followed this and made it mandatory for the women in their homes to wear the Burqa/Niqab.

An important point to note here is that it seems that many Muslims are against the Burqa / Niqab and see the ban as a positive thing. Some Ulemas have even expressed opinions that the Burqa / Niqab is not mandatory and is a matter of personal choice. They have even said that it’s better to avoid it or give it up especially in situations where there are racial tensions with Muslims who are living in this country as a minority. However, these Ulemas were openly humiliated by the very influential ACJU who described them as foreign elements or condemned them as people who dared to question the faith.

On 11th March 2016, during a Friday sermon at the Kollupitiya Mosque, the President of the ACJU preached that the Burqa would not be a security problem to anyone, and that it will never be.

However, immediately after the Easter Attacks he was quick to state that the Burqa/Niqab should be banned when the situation is disorderly. A few days later the ACJU sided with the Government in supporting a complete ban on face covers under the prevailing Emergency Law, interpreted widely as a ban on the Burqa/Niqab. In the meantime another Ulema from the same ACJU stated that the President need not guide them on what Muslim women should wear and that the ACJU had already decided to ban the Burqa/Niqab four days prior to the Government ruling. But the central question is, who gave the ACJU the power to decide for Muslim women what to wear or not to wear, and also decide the colour of their attire? How can the ACJU deny the right of women to wear the Niqab after years of preaching to women that they are ‘sinners’ if they did not wear it?

The ACJU that self-claims to be representative of the Sri Lankan Muslims have always proved their double standards and pretense. For instance, it is the ACJU that submitted a report to the Ministry of Justice that a 12-year old girl can be given in marriage under Muslim Law, even though affected women and girls have demanded for amendments in the Muslim laws governing marriage and divorce and an increase in the age limit for marriage for more than 30 years now. A point to note here is that while women have consistently demanded for the abolishment of oppressive Muslim laws which affect women and girls, it is the ACJU who have continued to be the gatekeepers of these laws which govern Muslim women in Sri Lanka.

Is terrorism really the reason the Niqab/Burqa has been banned?

Sadly, there have been many terrorist attacks across the world, that have killed many. Yet, except for one incident in Yemen where a man in a Burqa possessed weapons, all the other attackers were open with their identities. Even in Sri Lanka during incidents of ‘Tiger terrorism’ by the LTTE, the female suicide bombers never covered their faces with a Burqa or Niqab. We endured a terrible war and its consequences for three decades. We faced many a bomb blast and many checkpoints. Even during this period, the Government never banned the Burqa and Niqab. We, as Muslim women, had covered our faces and had worn the black Abayah even then. The Government could have simply banned it assuming that anyone could use the Burqa for disguise. Yet, they did not. Though the Muslim women wear the Burqa/Niqab, they always prove their identity showing their Identity Card or Passport or Driving License at all the checkpoints, without any confrontations. We all have responsibilities towards the nation’s security and Muslim women have always cooperated in this regard.This is usual in every country where Burqas/Niqabs are worn. So why has it been banned in our country when no acts of terror have been carried out by someone in a Burqa or Niqab?

There needs to be a clear answer as to why the Burqa and Niqab was banned in the name of security yet without any proper evidence between acts of terror and the Burqa/Niqab. The real issue is how hatred towards a particular community is gradually given shape and form and implemented in some way.

Therefore, the real reasons for the ban seems clear. It appears that it is due to the complaints from both non-Muslims and Muslims, who have asked: ‘What is this Burqa? Even the sight of it is irritating us. Why on earth are they wearing it?’ There are also those that believe that Muslim women whose head and face are covered must be oppressed and need to be ‘saved,’ so therefore a ban is good for them. As if we Muslim women don’t have the courage to speak out on our own behalf! This ban is simply a continuation of this discomfort and a broader discourse around Islamophobia. The hatred towards this particular attire and the animosity that has slowly and gradually developed against it, has exploded dramatically in the current context.

We have to accept that this discomfort exists. The best evidence proving this is the ACJU’s letter dated 28 April 2019, which was shared with the Muslim community in Sri Lanka. This letter clearly stated that the Burqa/Niqab should be completely avoided and the Abayah should be in colours other than black. What is the reason to ban the black Abayah as opposed to a coloured Abhaya? What is the connection between the colour black and terrorism? It’s quite obvious that it is nothing to do with national security, and everything to do with the hatred towards these types of clothing and the colour of it. So when the opportunity arose, this simmering hatred gave way to a ban. According to the country’s situation, safety for all is critical. There is no doubt about that. Yet, shouldn’t we understand that the ban on the Niqab/Burqa without a clear connection between terrorism and this attire, is simply political and is deeply affecting Muslim women?

The ones who were directly involved in the terrorist act that has led the country to these tragic days, are barbarians. They committed the murders clearly exhibiting their identities – a few with finely trimmed beards, and others with perfectly cut mustaches, in t-shirts and jeans, caps and sports shoes. They looked ‘decent and modern’ and yet, they caused a bloodbath. The women in the pictures that were released by the Government who were identified as wives and relatives of the terrorists, hadn’t covered their faces. This is yet another example how there is no connection between terrorism and the Burqa/Niqab.

We all have a responsibility to build unity between each other, to nurture and strengthen understanding so we can live peacefully without violence. If I begin to think that another person has to change their attire because I don’t like it, then I need to reflect inwards and realise that I need to change. Oppression begins when I begin to impose my likes and dislikes on another. And this includes Muslims who are against the Burqa/Niqab. From deciding what women – your sister, daughter, mother, wife, friend, lover – should wear, to the pretense of choice by saying for example, ‘I don’t say anything but they don’t wear it because I don’t like it,’ is all a part of the oppressive politics around women’s clothing.

How does the Burqa / Niqab ban affect Muslim women?

It is people from Kattankudy in the Batticaloa District who carried out the suicide bombing. There are also Muslims in Kattankudy who are genuinely concerned about social justice issues. There are those who have strived to maintain good relationships regardless of race and religion, even after incidents such as the 1990 massacre of hundreds of Muslim worshippers in mosques in Kattankudy. There are those who work day and night towards peace-building, for example in a context of land disputes between the people of Ariampathy and Kattankudy in the East. There are others who try and maintain good relationships between people of different races through art and literature. There are women who wear the Burqa or the Niqab and black and coloured Abayahs, who work for the empowerment of women despite barriers, who tirelessly collected relief items for days on end when primarily Sinhala-Christian families in the Kelaniya area were inundated with flood waters. All these people are from Kattankudy. So when people accuse the entire village of Kattankudy, it hurts me. How can we make such sweeping, generalised statements?

As a Muslim woman activist, I spend a lot of time with Muslim women in various villages. The many women who are striving hard within the boundaries of these Muslim villages – to ban child marriages of girls; to organise facilities for the education of girls who are isolated due to divorces; to file cases claiming custody of children for women abandoned by their husbands; to improve the livelihood of single women; to work for women’s representation in politics and to fight against all the oppressions that women face – are also women who wear Abhayas and Burqas. The choice of many school-going girls and university students to wear Abhayas and Burqas is made because sometimes this is the only way to access education and higher education for some Muslim women. For some women, wearing the Abhaya is an important signifier for them of their identity, and they have also used this to overcome oppression, contrary to popular belief, and have as a result furthered their achievements in many fields.

I am not here to argue whether the Abhaya is forced on women or whether it is their choice. What I am worried about is that this ban will push Muslim women – many of whom are already in a process of fighting or striving to gain their rights – further into the margins. Just imagine how painful and difficult it can be for women to suddenly have to show their faces in public when they have been living for decades wearing the face cover, and being taught to believe that they are sinners if they do not do so. Have you ever considered that through this ban, we are confining these women to their houses, taking away their freedom? Have you thought of how this is going to affect ordinary Muslim women who use public transport, as opposed to the rich who have mobility through their own private vehicles? For some women, their Burqa is their shield. They are allowed to come out of the house only if they wear a Burqa. Banning the Burqa may result in girls having to give up schools, universities and social service activities. This will definitely affect the development of half of our women and the entire Muslim community in the long run.

After the Easter Attacks, the answer given by well-known Ulema Yousuf Mufti on a national television channel when asked about banning the Burqa/Niqab was, “there won’t be any issue if the women stay at home as it is their place. The problem of the Burqa arises when these women step out of their houses.” If this is the opinion of the so called representatives of Muslims in Sri Lanka, we have to understand that Muslim women may face changes in their lives that are far worse than the present state. We don’t need to help these women. But can we at the very least step aside without adding more fuel to the fire? Can we stop criticising them while staying inside our own comfort zone? Could we, the ones who enjoy our comforts, try not to push them deeper into worse situations due to our hatred and prejudice, claiming that it is in the name of terrorism?

This ban is celebrated by the ones who are against it. The lack of clarity around the ban on face covers and whether the ears should or should not be covered, has become an excuse for people to extend their hatred to insist that women also don’t cover their head with a hijab (scarf) or shawl. As a result, Muslim women have been denied entry into many places, including hospitals and schools. I had the same experience, but my middle-class privilege and profession as a lawyer, is what gave me entry.

The decision to give up the Burqa/Niqab or to wear it, is a decision that should be taken by Muslim women, not the Government, and certainly not by the all-male ACJU. The Government needs to take serious measures instead to ensure the security of the country without engaging in illogical actionss uch as this Burqa/Niqab ban, which is like using a plaster for the leg when the arm has been fractured.

The Burden of Proof

The round-up of suspects in Sammanthurai and the killing of terrorists in Sainthamaruthu are two incidents that happened in Muslim villages. The operations were successfully carried out and the tips to security forces were provided by Muslims. These are small examples where Muslims are trying to act against terrorism and live peacefully in this country as Sri Lankan citizens. But we are being compelled repeatedly to prove that we are not terrorists.

Why are the rights of Muslim women being snatched away, just because terrorists have committed attacks in the name of Islam? I am completely against terrorism. I am not the culprit of these attacks, but I am made to feel guilty as a woman belonging to the Muslim community. I consoled myself by realising that I don’t need to consider the people who murdered others, as Muslims. Instead, I question why I am being held responsible and treated like a terrorist just because I am a Muslim? Muslim women, like everyone else, are shedding tears for those who were murdered at places of worship, including for the innocent children who were killed. We were shaken on hearing the news. We despise the terrorists and their supporters. Yet, we are the ones in fear and unable to leave our houses just because we are Muslims. We are also victims and survivors of terrorism, so why are we being burdened with more pain?

I am a Muslim woman who lives by the principle of non-violence. I strongly believe that any individual has the right to lead their life according to their religion, culture and their identities, without oppressing another. This isn’t a question of whether I personally like the Burqa or not. I simply cannot accept a ban that has nothing to do with safety and everything to do with fear or hatred towards it and Islam. If you think that taking a position against the banning of the Burqa/Niqab is an extremist position, I urge you to step outside of your personal feelings about this clothing and consider the broader implications and context.

Where do we go from here? In whichever way we choose to move forwards, let’s ensure that we can rest peacefully at night, and that the day doesn’t come -even in our dreams – where we regret the Burqa/Niqab ban that was born from our hatred and intolerance.

Read more content on the impact of the Easter Sunday attacks here.