Controversy Surrounds Face Veil Ban
By Waruni Karunarathne
The decision of the University of Moratuwa to ban the face veil worn by female Muslim students within the university premises has brought a sensitive issue to the fore. The vei,l worn by Muslim women, has been a controversial issue on which many countries have been unable to hold their ground. Especially with reference to burqa and niqab, countries across Europe have made various gestures to address their concerns in the recent past.
In the South Asian region, there is a huge variation of religious identities with multiple customs and practices among the same religious groups. Traditional dress and practices adhered by one group often vary from the other. Catholic nuns wear headdresses or veils, Buddhist monks wear saffron robes and Sikhs wear turbans as a marker of their religious faith that is symbolic of their commitment. Likewise, some Muslim groups consider burqa or niqab as a display of religious faith and cultural identity of Islamic women.
While many feminists see Islamic women’s full-face veil as a symbol of cultural oppression of women, Muslim women uphold it as their religious and cultural identity and personal conviction. There are other concerns among the community who see it as a security threat with rising terrorist and criminal activities in many countries.
France, with the largest Muslim minority in Western Europe, was the first European country to ban the full-face Islamic veil in public spaces. The decision was followed by Belgium. However, human rights activists have raised their concern over banning religious or cultural practices, as it is a violation of fundamental human rights of an individual’s right to practice a religion of their choice.
Speaking to The Sunday Leader, Dr Prathiba Mahanamahewa attorney-at-law and Commissioner of Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission said, “Article 10 of the Sri Lankan constitution places no limitations to religious practises and clearly states the freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of anybody’s choice. In fact, there are Supreme Court judgements given against banning the face veil of Islamic women in Sri Lanka.” Dr Mahanamahewa reiterated that the face-veil of Muslim women had been a practice that had been among the Muslim community over many years. With reference to the University’s decision, he added that those Muslim girls could fill an application and lodge a complaint with the Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission if they were forced to remove their face-veil against their will. However, he added, “There are some criminalists who use these religious practices for their advantage to be in hiding and to carry out their misdoings.”
Vice Chancellor of the University of Moratuwa Prof A.K.W. Jayawardane said, “Sometime back, three Muslim girls made a request asking permission for them to wear the face veil in the university. We referred the issue to the Board of Residence and Discipline, and the board unanimously came to a decision.” According to Prof Jayawardane, this was the first time they had to face a problem of this nature, as there was nobody in the history of the university who had worn a face veil within the university premises. “We have had Muslim students and staff in the university. Yet, there had never been any issues or concerns related to this matter previously. Two of the girls who made the request accepted our decision while the other girl appealed. However, she later agreed to act in accordance with the decision. The university is a place that facilitates religious, cultural and ethnic harmony parallel to education. Each student has to be identified within the campus. The decision had to be made for security purposes,” Prof Jayawardene said.
President of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka N M Ameen said, “There are certain religious groups within Muslims who strictly adopt certain customs slightly different from the others. All the Muslims believe that Muslim women must wear hijab, but niqab that covers the whole body including the face has caused controversy. Currently, the Muslim community in Sri Lanka is carrying out discussions to come to a common understanding and to address the security concerns raised due to the face veil worn by a certain group of Islamic women in the public domain.” According to him, the university, as an education institution, has the right to take some decisions on security grounds and to maintain uniformity within the system.
Convener of Inter University Students Federation (IUSF) Sanjeewa Bandara said that nobody has the right to violate someone else’s religious freedom. “It is a different story whether they accept the philosophies behind the customs practiced by other religions or not. Based on those philosophical differences, nobody can force anybody to abandon their religious or cultural practices and discriminate their rights.”
Complications within the system
Azad Sally, the leader of Muslim Tamil National Alliance stated that they had directed this issue to the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama, the apex religious body of Islamic Theologians that provides religious and community leadership to the Muslim community in Sri Lanka. While security concerns are valid, he added that they fear it could be an initiative to more prohibitions against their religious practices. He elaborated, “The decision taken by the university might influence other institutions in the country to act in the same way. Muslims are a part of the Sri Lankan community and our traditions need to be accepted. However, an education institution, like a university where there are several hundred students, may have to put certain regulations to avoid complications within the system.”
Expressing his views, President of the Federation of University Teachers’ Associations Dr Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri added, “There is no legal barrier in Sri Lanka banning the face veil of Muslim women in the country and, therefore, they have the legitimate right to wear their traditional dress anywhere in the country. However, there are practical problems related to identification during examinations and related matters that need to be addressed by the education institutions. There is a chance that some will abuse these religious practices for wrong purposes that may cause injustices to other students.”
He also pointed out how these small incidents could be manipulated by certain religious extremists to provoke ethnic hatred among the community. Therefore, he emphasised the importance of addressing these issues with cultural sensitivity to avoid politics related to divisive opinions that may cause unnecessary conflicts.