Veiled politics | Sunday Observer

Veiled politics

5 May, 2019

Monday, April 8: In Moratuwa the town famous for its furniture and Baila masters, 18 kilometres south of Colombo, I sit at a mall chatting with a girl dressed in a long black robe-like dress (abaya) and head covered with a scarf (hijab). Vivacious and in her early 20s, being born and bred in Dubai, she tells me, “I feel much at home with you people. More equal and accepted than I am in my town among my own people.” She had travelled from Ampitiya, Kandy to join a Corporate Social Responsibility project that morning.

A reverend sister from the Catholic Church had travelled from Vavuniya. We are part of a big, noisy group of youth and a handful of those young at heart. The group has bonded across varied walks of life, ethnic, religious, age, gender and dress code differences. People look at us. We pretend not to notice.

Friday May 3: I sit in the night mail train near the door across a middle aged woman dressed in the same way. Her frail hands clutch a plastic bag with a few belongings. The weathered face is turned at the darkness outside. Feeling many eyes on me I look up to find all in my view, mostly men, eyeing me cautiously. A man seated three rows away, dressed in western clothing - denim jeans and a t-shirt complete with a backpack, a dress code which became popular among Sri Lankan men during the past two decades; is desperately trying to catch my eye. His face shows stern disapproval. He gestures at a vacant seat in front of him. Looking away, I catch the eye of the woman in the abaya and smile. A tear rolls down her weathered face.

In between, on April 21, Easter Sunday, seven men belonging to an extremist group, blew themselves up, killing over 250 people at three churches and three hotels in Batticaloa, Colombo and Negombo. They were all dressed in western clothing. None of them wore the traditional ankle length robe worn by Muslim women. Neither did they have headscarves, nor were their faces covered, the CCTV recordings prove.

Yet, the Sri Lankan Government issued a ban on wearing face coverings in public places, the face veils (niqab) and face and body coverings (burqa) worn by Muslim women included. It is a temporary measure under Emergency Regulations for national security, is the explanation behind the directive. However, it was prompted by the petition of MP Ashu Marasinghe, who proposed that the body and face-covering burqa should be outlawed on security grounds. It was also the populist rhetoric heralded after Easter Sunday.

The ban was in the offing. A non-Muslim man wearing westernised clothes proposed it. The men in authority seconded it and got the bearded men in the All Ceylon Jamiyathul Uleima (ACJU) - the authority over Muslim affairs in the country to sanction it. And yet, out of nine suicide bombers who died that day, only one was a woman and she blew herself up in her own home.

Islamophobia or to put it in a Sri Lankan context, the fear of women who cover themselves from head to toe is not a strange phenomenon in Sri Lanka. It was only a few weeks ago that the Human Rights Commission in Sri Lanka issued a landmark ruling that allowed four Muslim teachers to wear the abaya, their traditional dress to school. Why did these Muslim women have to go to a quasi judicial Commission to wear their choice of dress?

“The world over, any battle against any Islamist radicalism was fought over the control of women’s bodies. Muslim women are the first casualty of Sri Lanka’s new war against terror,” said activist Shreen Abdul Saroor, founder member of the Women’s Action Network (WAN). About the ban on burqa and niqab, “None of us have been consulted. A bunch of men take a decision overnight and now the women have to adhere to that,” she said.

She explained how the body and face coverings of both men and women comes from the Quran. Known as aurath they are the instructions for men and women to cover their body parts not to attract the attention of the opposite sex. However, “It is not clear and is interpreted in different ways,” Saroor said.

In Sri Lanka within the past 20 years, the Muslim community had come under the influence of Islamist radicalists and the Wahabi sect who had introduced various forms of restrictions on the dress code of Muslim women. “ACJU had been issuing fatva or directives reinforcing these forms of dresses including face veils. Women’s bodies had become a battlefield between the ACJU and the Thowheeth Jama’ath. All this is why we are here today. For the past 20 years, through ACJU and various groups women’s bodies have been policed and guarded by men. Women were directed to wear prescribed attire. Every time they say cover, we do. Now they say uncover, and how do they expect us to uncover now?” she questions.

Over the past few decades, women in conservative groups have been conditioned to cover themselves. Uncovering their faces, for some is like being naked. “It causes such psychological trauma when they are asked to uncover their faces, so how could they do it?” says Saroor.

Aaliya (not her real ame), a mother of three teenagers agrees. She hadn’t been outside her house without wearing her abaya and hijab since her marriage, about 17 years ago. “I do not wear a niquab. However, if I had to go outside without the hijab, I would be totally lost. It would certainly feel as if I’m going out naked.” However, the government has confirmed that the hijab is not banned by the order issued under emergency regulations.

Saroor says that there was a better way for the government to get the support of Muslim women to give up the burqa and the niqab in public. The President could have addressed them, through television requesting their cooperation for national security instead of making it illegal under emergency law. The order has already made access to public places difficult for women even in hijab.

However, Jameela (not her real name) a young woman whose dress sense is regarded ‘punky’ by her peers messaged, “I started wearing a head-scarf.” She explains how angry she is by the social media buzz on the ban on face veils. Earlier in the week, social media was abuzz with arguments for and against the ban of the face veil, many in favour and more against. Some warned the citizenry of the tunnel view and ‘Muslimising’ the terror without having a broader view. There were stories of harassment not only of the people wearing head-scarves or hijabs but also of those wearing shawls.

Targeting clothing is more than an attack on a community’s culture. It is intolerance breeding xenophobia. “The government had failed to protect the citizenry. This is to cover it up. They are trying to hide behind the women’s veil,” says Saroor, and that is, veiled politics.