27 year-old Farzana Hussain* from Wellampitiya, a town about 4kms east of Colombo, Sri Lanka, has been wearing the burqa since she was 11.
Following the deadly attacks that killed more than 250 people in the country’s capital on Easter Sunday, the Sri Lankan government banned the covering of face that “hinders the identification of individuals in a way that threatens national security.” This includes the burqa and the niqab, face coverings worn by several Muslim women.
Since the ban on April 29, Hussain hasn’t left her house.
A schoolteacher by profession, who teaches the Qur'an – the way of reading and memorizing it – she says the ban has made it ‘difficult’ for her to go out.
She says she’s lucky that the school holidays haven’t ended yet, but if the ban isn’t lifted by the time schools reopen for the new session, it will be hard for her to teach.
“We have been advised to stay at home unless there is a dire need to go out. If I’m not allowed to cover my face, I will stop going out to teach because I prefer covering to teaching,” Hussain says, hoping the ban is lifted soon.
Meanwhile, 18 year-old Zareen Rashid* from Colombo is scared that even if the ban is lifted, it will be hard to avoid the racism.
“The niqabis are still going to go through racial discrimination and will be asked to remove it in public places. Going out with the niqab after the ban being lifted will be equivalent to walking in hell because people will call you a terrorist. Staying indoors will be a better option than going out,” she says.
She may be right.
Back in 2016, after France banned the burkini – a swimming costume that adheres to the Islamic rule of dress that requires women to cover much of their body and heads – following a terror attack, photographs and videos emerged showing the police stripping women at the beaches.
Rashid hasn’t left her house since the ban. However, she knows she will have to remove her niqab as soon as college begins. Rashid started wearing the niqab at 14 after her father advised her to.
But, she says, wearing it has strengthened her connection with God; making her feel brave and confident, and it hasn’t stopped her from achieving anything she has wanted to. Without her niqab, she says she feels ‘naked’.
However, Mariam Wadood, a lawyer and activist who works with the Colombo-based NGO Women In Need, wants the ban to be imposed permanently.
She believes “everyone's rights and liberties must come with limitations. Freedom must stop at the beginning of someone else’s fear or discomfort.”
Mariam, who herself does not cover her face, believes that the burqa and niqab are Wahabi influences and although they are not a symbol of terror, they are a symbol of radical Islam. “The burqa and niqab create disconnect and division in the country, among communities, and even within the community,” she says.
“We must now put our country first. National and public security is threatened, and if it is law that the niqab and burqa must be removed then we must adhere to it,” she says adding that the niqab is not compulsory is Islam.
Kolkata-based women’s rights activist and researcher Mariya Salim agrees that the niqab is, in fact, not compulsory in Islam adding that the tradition is itself dictated by patriarchy.
“But these are deeper questions and the state cannot impose these restrictions by force,” she says.
Mariya says that while banning the burqa and niqab might seem like a progressive thing to, the reasons for the ban are completely wrong.
“It restricts the mobility of those women who use it to navigate spaces. They are anyway living under severe patriarchy in the name of religion, and now their movement will also be restricted, especially if they come from conservative families that require them to wear niqab. It will make life more difficult for women who are dictated by patriarchy in their everyday lives.”
For 33 year-old Ayesha Muhsin in Colombo, wearing the niqab made her feel safe and secure, even if sometimes she felt she was being judged.
“Travelling alone with the niqab is easy, as you don’t feel uncomfortable about the trishaw driver acting funny,” says Muhsin, who has given up wearing the niqab after the ban to make sure her face is very visible but is still faced with suspicious glares because she wears the hijab that covers only her head.
Burqa is a garment that covers the entire body from head to toe, while niqab covers only the face, leaving slits for eyes. The hijab, on the other hand, covers only the head and the face remains revealed. The burqa and niqab are banned in Sri Lanka, while the hijab isn’t.
But, she believes, not wearing the niqab is equally dangerous. “There’s a lot of hatred towards the Muslim community at the moment and wearing the niqab in public might result in the niqabi becoming a victim of some serious harassment.”
Women like Hussain, Wadood, and Muhsin believe that the ban will indeed help with “public protection”, a narrative the Sri Lankan government has sold to its citizens.
“I think the ban is a sensible move as it was taken due to security reasons and not for racial reasons,” says Muhsin, who has been wearing the niqab for twenty years.
Salim, the women’s rights activist and researcher, believes that by banning the burqa and niqab the Sri Lankan government is “clearly putting forth the ‘all terrorists are Mulsim narrative’.”
“When an attack like the one in Sri Lanka happens, it affects the entire sub continent. Muslims across South Asia have been trying to prove that it is not ‘their Islam’ the kind that ISIS claims to be representing because they fear the backlash of this decision which is nothing but Islamophibic.”
Even 18 year-old Rashid is perplexed about how exactly banning the burqa and niqab might solve any security issues.
“It’s because they (government) think it’s only those that wear the burqa and niqab are terrorists,” she says.
*Names changed to protect identity.