Photo courtesy of Twitter
Ramadan for many of us Muslims is a month of peace and spirituality, a month of tolerance, speaking good words, sharing good thoughts and connecting with God and religion. There’s much I need to do personally to become a better Muslim but this month is one where Muslims even like myself commit and try to be better human beings.
It is a month we not just stay away from food but also from negative thoughts like anger. During this month, where many Muslims heads are bowed down in prayer, on April 27, 2021 Sri Lanka’s cabinet approved the burqa ban, spurring many unwelcomed feelings for prostrating men and women. What is ironic is this comes at a time when we are also told to be extra vigilant and wear not one but even two face masks. What is worrying are the misunderstandings that will undoubtably follow the burqa ban. My mind goes back to the Sampath Bank incident of July 2020. Even as a practicing Muslim I had to do some googling to understand what the niqab or burqa specifies. What is funny and scary at the same time are the many vigilantes who will pop up, taking the law unto their hands whenever a woman clad in Muslim attire walks the streets or tries to enter a public facility.
Two years and one week prior to this, a group of extremists carried out a violent and inhumane attack on innocent men and women in the midst of worship at church or who were trying to have breakfast at some of Colombo’s hotels. The pain and suffering caused is unforgivable and many questions remain unanswered for grieving families. Getting both governments who have been in charge since the attack to tell us why this attack happened, who was really behind it and bringing to trial every individual accountable, has been like pulling teeth. Both governments obscuring justice and making it next to impossible not to believe the conspiracies. In the immediate aftermath of the attack all we knew, and all we still know, is that the group who carried out the attack was led by Zaharan and they chose to identify themselves as Muslim. This resulted in an innocent population of approximately 9 per cent of Muslims in Sri Lanka being painted as one and the same. It goes without saying that although the terrorists who planned and executed this attack might be able to regurgitate entire Surahs, the Quran and its teachings have not gone past their throats. However, Muslims across the Island were all painted as terrorists and persecuted both violently and non-violently.
A few years we had two notorious anti-Muslim riots, one in Digana (2018) and the other in Aluthgama (2014), both leading to further mistrust and a deepening of cleavages between the Muslims and Sinhalese communities.
Fast forward to 2020 – we meet Covid-19, a pandemic that swept across the globe regardless of geographical boundaries, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, colour or religion. In Sri Lanka, however, this pandemic was weaponised by pseudo-nationalist camps to further alienate a group that for a decade now has been facing various forms of discrimination and marginalisation. It was alleged that Covid-19 was spread across the nation by Muslims. Patients were regularly labelled by their faith. The situation was not quelled by the government but heightened with the policy of forced cremation based on pseudo-scientific facts. The policy was baseless right from the get go but took nearly a year to be rectified.
Now take an individual. Let’s call him Mohammed. Say Mohammed was privy to the anti-Muslim riots of the past decade, say Mohammed’s wife was spat on after Easter Attacks, say his family business or home was stoned or burnt down and say he had to cremate his father who passed away from Covid-19. Today Mohammed down in Sujud (prostration) comes back up to hear that the burqa has been banned. Mohammed’s wife or children don’t wear the burqa. Mohammed would have been willing to support the community to make such a change. But today when Mohammed hears that this has been forced upon his community, would he not see this as discrimination? Would he not be enraged by this?
Now let’s leave Mohammed aside as the burqa ban can be argued to be more about Fathima than Mohammed. Fathima has chosen to wear the niqab or burqa. For Fathima the niqab is emblematic of her faith and her belief in what constitutes a good Muslim. For liberal people like myself, we might choose the belief that the niqab is not compulsory, but that is irrelevant to Fathima’s concerns. Her choice is now part of her identity. As feminists we err on the side of caution when it comes to the subject of the niqab/burqa, as it might be argued to be a sign of oppression. Contrary to popular beliefs for most Muslim women their attire is not just a sign of their faith but also of their agency and can be quite liberating. Every woman I know who dresses conservatively has done so out of choice and to strip her of one of her garments would unmistakably humiliate her. Even if you believe that all women have been forced at the onset of their menses, at least we can agree that what she has continued to wear throughout her adolescence and adulthood is now a part of her. It defines her, just like your clothing defines you.
Maybe some of us have not had to think too hard about what your choice of attire means to you. I personally had to fight with my family for years to dress in what I am most comfortable in and to be deprived of that freedom today would mean someone is chipping away at my identity. The niqab or burqa to many women is the same as a hijab, sari, cross or the white clothes you wear when you go to the temple. This is part of your faith, your culture and even your Sri Lankanness in some ways, quite possibly a part of your routine and one you have got accustomed to. This no different to the woman who chooses to veil herself when she steps out of her home. It helps her feel safe. It helps her assert her identity. It is a practice that is now so deeply ingrained in her day-to-day existence.
Post Easter Sunday attacks, Muslims chose to reflect and committed to repair and heal the cleavages that have emerged between Muslims and the majority Sinhala-Buddhist community over the past decade. There were discussions on Madrasas on the need to curtail Wahabism, reforms on the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act and one could argue that the burqa/niqab might have been next in line. However, before a decision to restrict or ban the niqab/burqa could emerge from within the community it was forced on us, and I don’t have to tell you how hard it is to swallow something when it is forced down your throat. The question that lingers in my head is why didn’t the government address the issue together with religious and political leaders from the Muslim community but instead choose to strip away yet another right of a Sri Lankan community? An infringement on any community’s rights is an infringement on all Sri Lankans. Sri Lanka is made up of diverse individuals of various faiths, cultures, and practices, of multiple religions, ethnicities, languages and beliefs. Sri Lanka is a celebration of colours. That is what makes Sri Lanka what it is; to make it monolithic is to strip her of her beauty.
Many citizens of Sri Lanka continue to beg and plead with our government and our leaders to find and apprehend the masterminds behind the Easter Sunday attacks. To quell these cries and the criticisms that come with it we have seen arbitrary, and quite meaningless, arrests and now a burqa ban. As an ordinary citizen of Sri Lanka, what I cannot fathom is how short sighted this burqa ban is. Short sighted in its attempt to distract us from the pandemic we are currently trying to wade through. Short sighted in its attempt to distract us from the looming economic crisis, where a man recently killed another over the price of a banana. Short sighted because slow but steady discrimination can have long term impacts. What is sad is we don’t have to travel across the world to learn this; we have it laid out in our own country’s history yet we refuse to learn from our past.
Since Independence in 1948, Sri Lanka’s leaders slowly but surely stripped away rights and entitlements of the Tamil population, perhaps not driven by racism but like today to distract, to deflect or for their own political gains. Take D.S. Senanayake and the Citizenship Act argued to have been enacted to reduce the power of the left parties of the time. Take S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and the Sinhala Only Act of 1956. Mr. Bandaranaike and his SLFP manifesto never initially spoke of Sinhala Only and, surprisingly or unsurprisingly, he was for federalism, he converted to Buddhism and struggled to speak Sinhala without a British accent. The Sinhala Only act came about to win an election and followed the economic crisis of the early 1950s. Take the first female Prime Minister of the world and her policies of standardisation and district quotas, the former affecting the Tamil speaking population and the latter brought in to rectify the mistake yet disadvantaging areas like Jaffna and Colombo. One can argue that these policies were largely in response to the growing struggles in the South and it might not necessarily have been to target and discriminate Tamils per se but the repercussions were unmistakable. What is common here is that each leader and subsequent government were desperate to distract and could only think in terms of zero sum. Rather than thinking of how to grow the cake they thought, “Let’s take a portion of the cake from the minorities and give it to the majority who make up most of our constituents”.
Today Sri Lanka is threatened with a new wave of Covid-19 following the current crisis in India. Many people are struggling to afford basic essentials and to keep their jobs. The situation looks ever more dire, even more so than it was in the 1950s or 1970s. The government is simply doing what its predecessors have done. But have we not learnt that 30 years of discrimination was followed by 30 years of conflict? Are we willing to take Sri Lanka into another 30 years of bloodshed simply to distract or deflect from the current crises that need our attention?
If only the subject of Muslim women’s attire was approached sensitively with the consultation of key Muslim religious and political leaders, and especially Muslim women, none of us would need to be lamenting this. I wouldn’t need to be writing this article. Why continue to push a community? Who gains from this? Is this exactly what the government hopes for, to come out looking like the strongman? This sadly means the finger should really be pointed towards all of us Sri Lankans. While it’s easy to place blame on leaders, what seems poignant today and from the teachings of our past is to ask ourselves what is it that we do that demands our Government and leaders to set forth forceful and discriminatory policies against an entire community of Sri Lankans? Why does this satisfy some of us to know that our government will always take away a slice of the cake from someone to make some of us happy, so long as the some of us are part of the majority – a majority who can make or break an election? Are we not in some ways then as citizens lending a hand to weaponize the few radical fundamentalists like Zaharan who will use all these incidents that challenge a Sri Lankan’s sense of belonging and the subsequent fears that arise as ammunition to create his army, just like Prabhakaran did?
My prayer this month of Ramadan is for tolerance. For Muslims to practice tolerance in the face of discrimination and for all Sri Lankans to be tolerant of our country’s diversity. This way, we don’t need to feel angry today, we don’t need to deepen our cleavages but instead come together as a nation in facing the new Covid-19 wave and the economic crisis at hand.
Sri Lanka, we are 73 years old now, let’s try to be wiser than we were when we were in our teens!