Sri Lanka Bans Muslim Face Coverings

The ban covers any face garment that “hinders identification.”

Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena took advantage of an emergency law to ban face coverings when the wearer is in a public place. The move comes days after many suicide attacks killed 250 individuals on April 21, a date coinciding with Easter Sunday. Hundreds more were injured due to the blasts. The law explicitly bans any face garment that “hinders identification.” The intention is to bolster security. Muslim leaders criticized the government stricture. The law, however, does not mention the burka and the niqab, worn solely by Muslim women. It is, however, implied so.

The ban was enforced throughout the island nation on April 29. The act criminalizes a practice linked to an ultraconservative strain of Islam which was recently imported to Sri Lanka from Saudi Arabia. The law focuses on undue public attention on pious women who peacefully practice their religious beliefs. Nimmi Gowrinathan, a professor at City College of New York, pointed out that it is common to see Muslim women becoming an easy cover for any military action like it has been done in several conflict-ridden countries, including Afghanistan. She was against the Sri Lankan government policy, saying that failed policies must not be a knee jerk reaction from Colombo.

Many Islamic scholars say it is not mandatory for a Muslim woman to hide the face. The only Islamic strain to enforce this is the Salafists, an ultraconservative branch of Sunni Islam who preaches a literal move back to ancient Islamic law which proclaims that women should cover their faces. Salafi ideas are newly brought into Sri Lanka. They came with the influx of ideas and foreign money to the country. The local population became more conservative. It is no coincidence that Mohammed Zahran, the alleged brain behind the Easter bombings, followed and taught an extremist strain of Islam in Kattankudy town 220 kilometers to the northeast of Colombo.

Ranil Wickremesinghe, the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, admitted to the press that his government is investigating the role foreign money played in the Easter attacks. He said Saudi money is flowing into religious organizations. President Sirisena’s move to ban face coverings would be futile for such bombings as men executed the Easter attack. A few Muslim women agree to the steps carried out by the government to stop such further attacks.

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