Sri Lanka bans 'face veils': Why have Muslim items of clothing always suffered in fight against terrorism?

  • To harness the future of a nation's safety to a measure that affects the personal freedom of women is certainly a novelty in Asia

  • This brings us to the question if such a move exists to normalise the rhetoric of the European far-right

  • It is no coincidence that the two European countries with two of the most lenient laws for absorbing refugees were the first to translate their spirit of welcome into anxiety

A week after coordinated blasts hit three churches and three luxury hotels, killing over 250 people and inuring more than 500 others in Sri Lanka, President Maithripala Sirisena made it illegal for Muslim women in the country to wear any form of face veils in public.

So deeply entrenched is the impression of equating the violent Islamism of the Islamic State to the everyday habits of followers of Islam that it skipped the attention of the world at large that Sri Lanka had become only the second ever country in Asia to enforce such a countrywide ban.

With the ban, Muslim women will still be able to wear the hijab (which covers the head and neck but leaves the face clear) but must eschew the niqab (a veil for the face that leaves the area around the eyes clear) and the burqa (which covers the entire face).

 Sri Lanka bans face veils: Why have Muslim items of clothing always suffered in fight against terrorism?

A woman makes her way through a Colombo street on the eve of the burqa ban coming into force. Reuters

A borrowed idea

While a really large section of the world would not know how a burqa is different from a hijab, vast swathes of political discourse have been devoted into convincing people that such items of clothing stand in the way of ensuring a terror-free world.

This political discourse had until now only reached the legislative echelons in countries witnessing a rightist resurgence in Europe. In Asia, with its enormous Muslim population (often forming parts of diverse societies), criticism of these quaintly Muslim items of clothing has been restricted to polltime complaints by right-wing leaders like Sanjiv Balyan.

Never until now had a democratically elected government in Asia felt the need to exact a ban on face covers. An exception to this is China, where face veils are indeed banned. There, however, government repression of Uighur Muslims is systematic and operates on a universal consensus that it is cruel.

To harness the future of a nation's safety to a measure that affects the personal freedom of women is certainly a novelty in Asia. Which brings us to the question if such a move exists to normalise the rhetoric of the European Far-Right.

Expression of anxiety

It is no coincidence that the two European countries with two of the most lenient sets of laws for absorbing refugees were the first to translate their spirit of welcome into anxiety and ban Muslim face veils. In 2011, France and Belgium were the first European countries to introduce a niqab and burqa ban. Women who wear such veils now face fines of up to €150. The alternative is an yet surprising assertion of European cultural snootiness -- they will be required to take "citizenship courses".

Unsurprisingly, this ban was upheld by the European Court of Human Rights in July 2014. The road to what would essentially amount to be religious intolerance was laid, with prompt bans by Austria (2017), the Netherlands (June 2018) and Denmark (August 2018). The extent of the bans differed with the countries. In Austria, you are only required to keep your face open in courts and schools and other public spaces. In Denmark, you pay 1,000 krone for any garment which keeps your face hidden. In the Netherlands, while you must take off your veil in schools, on public transport, and at hospitals, you can keep it on on public streets.

A woman wearing a burkini walks in the water in 2016 on a beach in Marseille, France, the day after the country's highest administrative court suspended a ban on full-body burkini swimsuits. Reuters

A woman in a burkini on a beach in Marseille, France, the day after the country's highest administrative court suspended a ban on full-body burkini swimsuits. Reuters

In Germany, drivers of any vehicles must take off their veils. A partial burqa and niqab ban is also operative for judges, civil servants and soldiers. In Switzerland's Tessin, a fine of over 9,000 euros was imposed on face veils in 2016.

Italy and Spain have both gone back and forth over similar bans.

While debates raged in the rest of Europe as to how best to word such bans so they could be taken as a measure of "inclusivity", France was taking things one step further as is their unique wont to. In 2016, a Muslim woman at a beach in Nice was forced to remove the outer item of her clothing by armed police officers after a ban on the burkini, a portmanteau of the bikini and the burqua that allows wearers of the latter to enjoy the water repellent benefits of the former.

How useful?

The criticism was unsparing, with several thinkers pointing out that administrative agents compelled to strip a woman "exposes the fallacy of the idea that laws policing women’s bodies somehow contribute to their liberation."

The measure hearkened back to the flash legislation brought by Kemal Ataturk in 1920s Turkey, where headscarves where banned to ensure the country adopted constitutional secularism in spirit and law. The new millennium has seen Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's conservative government take down the ban from every public institution, one by one.

Sri Lanka's situation now may be equated with many African countries where the face veil was banned in spite of sizeable Muslim populations, in the aftermath of terror attacks. Two suicide bombs attacks in a single month in 2015 led to a ban in Chad and Cameroon both. In Boko Haram-hit regions of Nigeria, the veil is banned as well.

Concerns over government intelligence reaching the wrong hands will always keep people from coming to any fact-based conclusion on how far such bans go in preventing future terror attacks. Anger simmers among those most hurt by such knee-jerk legislation, even though a particular religion is astutely never mentioned in statements by lawmakers.

Updated Date: Apr 30, 2019 14:35:38 IST