Muslims face continued harassment in wake of terror fears | Sunday Observer

Muslims face continued harassment in wake of terror fears

While Government institutions and ministries had started issuing insensitive dress code guidelines to public servants in the guise of ‘national security’ human rights organisations are getting hundreds of complaints from minority communities since that fateful Easter Sunday five weeks ago, the Sunday Observer learns.

Harassment of one community in particular started three weeks after the Easter Sunday incident, on May 13 and 14 in areas of the North Western Province where organized mobs mainly belonging to one particular political party, rampaged and looted houses and businesses belonging to a minority community, leaving two persons dead. Since then, these sinister political factions together with extremist Sinhala-Buddhist groups have been instigating racial hatred in society fostering xenophobia. A Buddhist priest belonging to one of the extremist factions, Omalpe Sobitha thera last week called for a boycott of medical practitioners belonging to the Muslim community, taking advantage of the situation which arose in Kurunegala, after the arrest of a doctor on the charges of amassing wealth, and conducting sterilisations of women without their informed consent. The Thera’s speech was widely publicized by some electronic media and some Sinhala newspapers.

Though a few community and political leaders had appealed for calm, requesting “not to send more people to Zahran” or “not to create more Zahrans” and “not to create another Black July, as in 1983” harassment continues, aided and abetted by front-line executors of law and order at the ground level acting with racial and religious bias. Arbitrary arrests are made of Muslims (whose freedom of wearing their ‘cultural clothes’ been curtailed), for having verses of the Quran in their phones or for reading their Holy book in-flight.These unnecessary incidents prove the depth of xenophobia that sinister factions have fueled in the aftermath of April 21st.

Women seem to be at the receiving end where harassment is concerned with a woman who had worn a dress depicting a ship’s wheel is still languishing at the remand prison in Ampara having been arrested by the local Police under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Act under the Emergency Regulations (ER)- it permits her to be remanded for 90 days. Doing the rounds on social media and argued about with strong sentiment was the video of a woman wearing a hijab (just a head scarf which leaves the face open) inside a bus, being harassed with unspeakable language by a so-called ‘macho man’. Another local police story from Negombo, is of a pregnant mother remanded for 30 days, for partially covering her face on her husband’s request, when she went out to attend to a personal matter.Though she had not wanted to cover her face due to the government directive, her husband had asked her to ‘cover part of her face’ saying that it was only the full face cover that was not allowed. Having gone out covering her mouth and nose, the neighborhood had complained to the local police and she was arrested as she came back, the Sunday Observer has learnt.

While the secretary of the Ministry of Public Administration and Disaster Management, J. J. Ratnasiri issued Public Admiistration Circular no 13 of 2019, dated May 29, under the heading ‘Ensuring security in the office premises of the government’- stipulated ‘When public officers arrive at their office premises during the office hours, male officers should be wearing trouser and shirt or national dress whilst female officers should be wearing saree or Osari.’ The ACJU issuing guidelines regarding Eid-Ul-Fit, on Wednesday May 28, advised the women to “refrain from going out for Eid related shopping, as much as possible and to get their purchasing done by males.” This is hardly the way to bring about national security or unity. If it was, no security forces would be needed if the whole country starts wearing trouser, shirt, national dress, saree or osari. The authorities have already forgotten that it was seven males dressed in trousers and shirts who blew up themselves at the churches and hotels on April 21. Keeping Muslim women home in the guise of sheltering them from harassment, exacerbates the imprisoning of Muslim women in their homes.

“Muslim women never had the choice of how they dressed,” Human Rights activist Shreen Saroor told the Sunday Observer. “The All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (ACJU), the highest Islamic authority of the country kept issuing Fatwa (directives) making it compulsory for women to cover faces.They reinforced it with preaching to the men at the mosques that if their women go out with uncovered faces that would be “equal to prostitution” and both the women and the men who allowed uncovered faces would never go to heaven, but end up in hell,” she said. Many Muslim women, are conditioned to wear what the males in their families dictate and for a woman who had been directed to cover her face as a girl, after doing so for 10 to 20 years, it is not easy at all to change.

“Women are the first point of casualty in any extremist war. Why has the State come out with these restrictions for women when it ( bombing) was done by men in western clothing? Why couldn’t they consult any women before taking decisions pertaining to women?” she questioned. The first gazette notification issued on April 27, prohibited covering the ears as well. Woman of all communities, be they Muslim, Tamil or Catholic or Hindu cover their ears when covering their heads. “Covering the ears is traditional in the asian culture,” said Saroor.

Complaints of harassment which Saroor had received included that of a Magistrate who had told a court attendee that she had to remove the head scarf (hijab) because it was ‘his court’, a directive to A/L students at a famous catholic girl’s school in Colombo to ‘remove head scarves and wear the uniform only, before they enter through school gates’, and a lady doctor at a district hospital in Colombo suburbs being requested by armed force personnel on duty to remove the headscarf totally before entering the premises.Hospital security personnel at another district hospital North of Colombo reportedly meted out the same treatment to all women wearing headscarves resulting in some women opting to return home without medical treatment. Saroor questioned the reason and the logic behind such actions and decisions. Exacerbating the problem is the constant vigilance of women identified as Muslims, said Saroor, taking her own experience at a Colombo supermarket as an example. Getting to know of a supermarket where the security guards followed women wearing head scarves Saroor had visited the same wearing a head scarf. “The female security guard started to follow me and I had to confront her as to why she was following me every step of the way. As an activist I am used to this kind of treatment and confronting, but the average woman would get scared or cry and would never step in to that place again,” she said. She also described an incident where a three wheel driver was verbally abusive against someone walking on the road wearing a head scarf.

While she personally received more than one hundred complaints of harassment, except for the Human Rights Commission Sri Lanka (HRCSL), people have failed to find justice at any other law and order authority she noted. “It is a tragic situation. Our entire system, from top to bottom is racist and racism is becoming rampant in society,” she lamented.

Incidents of patients refusing treatment from Muslim doctors were reported after Omalpe Sobitha’s call to boycott Muslim medical practitioners. A person with an Australia phone number posted in social media that he was reported reading the Quran on the flight to Colombo and was detained for 12 hours by the aviation authorities, advising others not to fly in Sri Lanka’s national carrier.A racket involving the following of vehicles of Muslims to extort money was reported. Two incidents were reported where a family taking a child to hospital was waylaid by a motor-bike gang and robbed while the police turned a blind eye. They had escaped with their lives after paying the demanded Rs. 40,000. At another incident at a Colombo restaurant, a Muslim couple was sent out as the armed forces secured the area for a ‘VIP’s visit.

Meanwhile, speaking to the media, Minister Mangala Samaraweera, stressed the need for national unity at a time opportunistic extremist elements try to create racial conflict. Though the police and the armed forces had come close to win the battle with the ISIS terrorists a few Sinhala extremist groups are aiming to blow up the situation into communal rioting and create another Black July. That is the highest danger and threat society has to face, he said. “These are the people the citizenry had to be wary of and together stand against,” said Samaraweera. “We know that in 1983, it was only a few extremists who followed Prabaharan, but his movement strengthened and spread widely after July 1983,” he said, noting that this time, we should not let it happen again. 

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