At a time when Sri Lanka commenced a serious dialogue on the need for banning the burqa (face veil) and the nikab (overall body garment) and closing down Islamic madrasas breeding religious extremism, former colonial rulers and their henchmen started to raise it as a violation of human rights. They took exception to Public Security Minister Sarath Weerasekera’s statement that the burka is ‘a sign of religious extremism’, and many Islamic schools are flouting the nation’s education policy and propagating religious extremism leading to terrorism.
Reacting to the announcement, British Permanent Representative to the United Nations and other International Organisations in Geneva, said, “I am concerned about the reports of a proposal before the Cabinet of Ministers to ban face veils, which would stigmatise marginalised Muslim women. On the question of allowing space for accountability processes at national level as an alternative to international efforts, we fully support the High Commissioner’s conclusions that this is just no longer a viable or responsible approach.”
Among others, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Ahmed Shaheed also raised his voice. He tweeted, “Burka bans are incompatible with int’l law guarantees of the right to manifest one’s religion or belief and of freedom of expression. Sri Lanka to ban burqas, shut Islamic schools for ‘national security’.”
Is Sri Lanka the first country to ban the burqa? Several European countries have banned wearing a nikab or burqa in public. France legislated a ban with effect from September 2010 and Belgium from March 2011. The United Kingdom’s good ambassadors who raised objections to Sri Lanka’s attempts to ban the burqa for security reasons after a dastardly terrorist attacks on civilian targets on Easter Sunday in 2019, were silent when their erstwhile fellow colonial powers – France and Belgium – banned the burqa and nikab a decade ago.
If they thought banning the burqa was a denial of human rights, the UK could have raised objections to France and Belgium at several European organizations at that time. They not only have the European Union, but also the powerful European Court of Justice (ECJ) for that purpose.
The European policy seems to be that there should not be any objection to a fellow ‘white-supreme’ country taking action against a minority community, even though there could be some community members indulging in terrorism. But when a Third World country – for that matter a small vulnerable South Asian country – applies the same rule, it is a violation of human rights, according to British logic. It is a clear case of Europeans and other powerful countries being above the law.
In addition to France and Belgium, the United Kingdom also seriously considered banning the burqa a decade ago. In July 2010, a British opinion poll revealed that 67 percent of the population supported a complete ban on wearing the burqa across Britain. A further poll in August 2016, suggested 57 percent of British people favoured banning the burqa in public, with 25 percent being against such a ban.
Supporting the proposed ban, Paul Braterman of UK’s National Security Society (NSS) said that people in a public place should be publicly identifiable as a matter of public safety. “The French government should be applauded for bringing to public attention the importance of facial expression and identification to social integration and relationships,” Celia Hart of NSS said.
The Western moves against the proposed ban of the burqa came following several other instances of blatant interference in the internal affairs of Sri Lanka. The British sponsored UNHRC Resolution on Sri Lanka added two other clauses to the original one. The cremation of the bodies of COVID-19 victims were talked about for months, until the country, after obtaining medical advice, decided to allow the burial of Muslims under strict medical regulations at a suitably selected remote area. The British Permanent Representative to UNHRC thought it fit even to criticize the problems in selecting a site for burials. “The forced cremations issue remains a live issue very much that the resolution should absolutely exert and while burials resumed, the decision to allocate burial sites in remote parts of the country remains deeply problematic,” he said.
Last month, suddenly another internal affair, this time the Provincial Council elections, was included in the resolution. It called on Sri Lanka to fulfil its commitment on devolution, including the holding of provincial council elections. The draft resolution also calls upon Colombo to ensure that “all provincial councils, including the Northern and Eastern Provincial Councils, are able to operate effectively, in accordance with the 13th Amendment to the Constitution of Sri Lanka”.
India’s statement at an interactive discussion on the UN human rights chief’s report on Sri Lanka had signaled that New Delhi was not happy with Colombo. The Indian representative had called for the “full implementation” of the 13th Amendment. This was a direct interference in an internal affair. Furthermore, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa had already declared that the PC elections would be held as early as possible and instructed officials to expedite the delimitation report, which is a constitutional requirement before holding the elections under the new electoral system. The two leaders have also asked the officials to take action to hold the elections under the old electoral system by passing the required bill in Parliament, if the delimitation process takes a long period of time.
India should realize that the UNHRC has no justification whatsoever to include PC elections in Sri Lanka in the resolution as it would be an unwarranted interference like listing India’s decision to undo Article 370 of the Indian Constitution that had given a special status to Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) state. It is one thing for New Delhi to raise the 13th Amendment related issues with Colombo during bilateral talks. But to raise it at an international forum is not a friendly act, to say the least.
With regard to the burqa ban, the government clarified that it would be done after a dialogue with the stakeholders. The government has announced that it would initiate a broad dialogue with all parties concerned and sufficient time will be taken for necessary consultations to be held and for consensus to be reached.
In 2016, the government proposed to ban the burqa. “However it was deferred after an objection was raised by then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe at the Cabinet meeting,” former President Maithripala Sirisena revealed while giving evidence at the Commission of Inquiry on Easter Sunday attacks. Last year, the Sectoral Oversight Committee was established and it proposed to ban all kinds of face veils and face covers in public places, including the burqa. The special report of the Committee was submitted to Parliament.
The Committee recommended that police officials should be given the power to request any person wearing something to cover their face in a public place to remove it at any given moment in order to establish the identity of such person and if such request is not complied with, police officials should have the power to arrest the individual without a warrant.
The Committee report also proposed that all students studying currently in Islamic religious schools, are expected to integrate into a state school under the Education Ministry within three years.
The wearing of burqas was temporarily banned in 2019 after the Easter Sunday bomb attacks on churches and hotels in Sri Lanka that killed more than 260 people. Minister Weerasekara said the government will ban more than 1,000 madrasas, saying they are not registered with the authorities and do not follow the national education policy.
Many Sri Lankans and fair-minded people across the world believe the burqa and the nikab should be banned. As Charlie Klendjian of UK’s National Security Society said, “I find the full veil intimidating. And besides, why should I reveal my identity to someone only for them to hide theirs from me?”