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Muslims in fear over Sri Lanka's proposed burqa ban

Government says it is seeking to improve security as the UN accuses it of religious discrimination

UCA News reporter, Colombo

UCA News reporter, Colombo

Published: March 19, 2021 10:42 AM GMT

Updated: March 19, 2021 10:48 AM GMT

Muslims in fear over Sri Lanka's proposed burqa ban

Sri Lanka proposes to ban the burqa on grounds of national security. (Photo: AFP)

Sri Lanka’s move to ban the burqa has created fear and tension among the island nation's minority Muslim community.

A young Muslim girl says she is scared after learning about the proposed ban on the burqa (covering all the body) and niqab (face veil).

"We faced a similar situation after the Easter Sunday bomb blasts and for months we did not want to go out alone," said the girl, who asked to remain anonymous.

Her Muslim friend had told her that she heard taxi drivers shout abuse while she was walking down the road with her mother. She is even wary about meeting her Sinhala school friends because of the issue.

Minister of Public Defense Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera said he had recently signed a paper seeking the approval of ministers and parliament to ban burqas and niqabs.

The government says the aim of the ban is to improve national security. The move comes ahead of the second anniversary of the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks when nine suicide bombers affiliated to local Islamist extremist group National Thowheed Jamath targeted three Christian churches and three luxury hotels, killing at least 279 people, including 37 foreign nationals, and injuring at least 500.

Madrasas (Islamic schools) are also in the government’s sights.

"There are over 1,000 madrasas which have not been registered under the national education policy and necessary steps will be taken to close them due to lack of proper regulation," said Weerasekera.

In the majority Buddhist nation, the wearing of burqas was also temporarily banned in 2019 after the Easter attacks.

A parliamentary committee on national security last year proposed an immediate ban on the burqa and suspended the registration of religious and ethnic-based political parties.

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Many swords were found in mosques and other places after the Easter attacks.

“The ban on the burqa is not in line with international law, which guarantees the right to express and express one's religion or belief,” Ahmed Shaheed, the UN’s special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, said on Twitter.

He stressed that the UN Declaration on Religion or Belief, adopted in 1981, recognizes that discrimination or resentment based on religion or belief is an insult to human dignity as well as a violation of the principles of the UN Charter.

He also strongly condemned Switzerland's ban on the burqa in a referendum.

Foreign Secretary Admiral Jayanath Colombage said the proposal to ban the burqa is based on precautionary measures on national security grounds following the investigations of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into the Easter attacks.

Cabinet spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella said the burqa would be banned only after sufficient dialogue and consideration so as not to harm any party.

Shreen Saroor, a Muslim and women’s rights activist, said the proposal reflects the Islamophobia in Sri Lankan society.

A Catholic nun from the Archdiocese of Colombo said the rights of minorities had been violated to please the majority Buddhists since the last election.

"A few weeks ago, Tamil and Muslim minorities marched from the east to north for four days demanding their rights," said the nun, who asked to remain anonymous.

Sri Lankan Catholics are conducting a prayer campaign and demonstrations countrywide to bring truth and justice for the victims of the Easter attacks.

The government previously forced minority Muslims and Christians to cremate the bodies of coronavirus victims in line with the practice of majority Buddhists. The government claimed that burials would contaminate groundwater.

Some family members of Muslims refused to claim relatives’ bodies because they were not allowed to bury their loved ones. After international criticism, the government is allowing burials again.

A Muslim girl from Negombo said that since the election of this government not only Muslims but all minorities have had to fight for their rights.

"The media publicity on the burqa and niqab ban may cause people to discriminate or target Muslim women in the country," she said.

Muslims comprise about 9 percent of Sri Lanka’s population of 21 million, while Buddhists account for more than 70 percent and Tamils about 15 percent.

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