Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Mar 28, 2021
Sri Lanka’s proposal to ban the burqa

Following media reports of statements made by Sri Lanka’s Public Safety Minister, Sarath Weerasekara, on the government’s decision to ban wearing of the burqa, several other reports have clarified that such a policy was only a proposal under consideration. The Foreign Ministry released a statement emphasising the need for “a broader dialogue with all parties concerned” adding that “sufficient time will be taken for necessary consultations to be held and for consensus to be reached.

The Foreign Secretary, Jayanath Colombage, has said that a decision has not been taken by the government to impose such a ban and that it is merely a proposal which is under discussion. Cabinet Spokesperson and Minister of Mass Media, Keheliya Rambukwella, further stated that decisions with regard to the ban have to be taken in a timely manner and that an open dialogue should take place in this regard.

As Sri Lanka reconsiders and reworks its proposal as well as re-evaluates the political backlash this move caused—and is likely to cause again,if and when it returns in the future in some morphed form—it is worth exploring some of the arguments around the debate on banning the burqa that has been taking place for some years now in Europe, the UK, the US, Canada, and Australia,and is consequently, spilling over to other parts of the world.

European ban

It was very recently, on 7 March 2021, that Swiss voters narrowly approved a proposal to ban face coverings in public, including the burqa and niqab worn by Muslim women. Over the past decade, several European states have banned or restricted the wearing of full-face coverings including France, Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, and Austria.Several other European countries have bans in place for specific contexts, such as within schools and universities.

When Germany was debating its proposal of the burqa ban in 2016,it was found that the proportion of women who actually wore a burqa or a niqab in Germany turned out to be only a tiny fraction of the population—“Around 0.01 percent. Their fervent critics almost certainly outnumber them,” wrote Adam Taylor, a reporter for The Washington Post. The question of proportionality is an important one. How many women actuallywear the full-face veil?


Muslims barely make up 10 percent of the total population of Sri Lanka, alongside 70 percent that are Buddhists,roughly 13 percent are Hindus and 7 percentare Christians. Only a small percentage of Sri Lanka’s Muslim women wear the burqa, recording perhaps just a tiny proportion of Sri Lanka’s 22 million people. Does the Sri Lankan government genuinely consider these women asecurity threat? Or is it more akin to, as Fouad Lahssaini—a Belgium politician who emigrated from Morocco—said of the ban in Belgium,“taking out a bazooka to kill a fly”. Essentially,it is unnecessary and triggering.

On national security grounds

Supporters of the Swiss proposal made the argument that full-face coverings symbolise repression of women and that faces should be shown in a free society like Switzerland. Similarly, when France banned face coverings, it was argued that they went against the country’s commitment to secularism, or the principle of laïcité as enshrined in their constitution.When challenged,The European Court of Human Rights upheld the French ban and found it permissible on the basis that it encouraged ‘living together’, though it did reject several arguments put forth in support of the ban. Bans on face veils have generally been implemented in European countries on the grounds that they are a threat to gender equality and serve as a barrier to better integration for Muslim women.

The Sri Lankan proposal, of which little is known as of yet, however, makes no such case for equality, integration, or secularism. Instead, it has been said that following the investigation of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry on Easter Sunday attacks (PCoI), the proposal is based “on precautionary measures that are needed on national security grounds” and “on the advice of intelligence agencies.”cThe debate between national security and protection of individual rightsis a long and ongoingone. However, during emergencies, individual rights are easily and often traded in for security.Throughout American history, individual rights have been suspended or curtailed in times of crisis. President Lincoln declared a state of emergency and suspended the legal rights of citizens in the border states of Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri, and Tennessee at the start of the Civil War. President Roosevelt authorised the internment of Japanese–Americans during World War II. President Bush signed the Patriot Act in 2001 following 9/11. There is no reason to believe that President Gotabaya Rajapaksawill act any differentlyor worse,particularly given thathe came into power on a campaign singularly focused on enhancing security and cracking down on extremism.Against a backdrop of terrorism and bombings, security trumps all other concerns.

Is this policy self-defeating?

While the threat of terrorism returning to a small island such as Sri Lanka, ravaged by decades of civil war, a struggling economy, and an insecure society cannot be underestimated; it is still important to ask:Are these Muslim women, an admittedly small proportion of the population, who are not unwilling to identify themselves for national security reasons really a potential security risk?Won’tsuch a move isolate and victimise an already vulnerable minority community?When the previous government issued a temporary ban in 2019 under emergency laws following the Easter Sunday bombings, the move wascriticised for targeting Muslim women, pointing out that they “had not only condemned the attacks but also provided evidence that investigators said was crucial to their probe.” Amnesty International’s Deputy South Asia Director, Dinushika Dissanayake, argues, “at a time when many Muslims in Sri Lanka feared a backlash, imposing a ban that effectively targets women wearing a face veil for religious reasons risks stigmatising them.”Dissanayake points out that where legitimate security concerns exist; the authorities can carry out identity checks when objectively necessary.

Studying the European bans, some researchers have argued that the burqa bans isolate Muslims and cause more fear in an already vulnerable community. Criminalising pious women mayprove self-defeating in the long run. As Carolyn Maree Evans, Professor of Law,explains, “tarring people who are merely conservative or traditional as terrorist sympathisers and intervening in the way in which they dress may well have the counterproductive effect of alienating such people from the government and may even radicalise those who come to resent being targeted in this way.

While there are real security concerns posed by covering one’s face that must be addressed,looking back on a decade of debateson the burqa ban,begs the question, can legitimate concerns not be resolved without legislation?

Policy and politics: Never in a vacuum

Policy and the politics that surround these decisions never take place in a vacuum. As much as states are sovereign entities with power over the way theircitizens conduct themselves in public life within its borders, statesoperate in a larger interdependent amd interconnected world with other states. Already, Sri Lanka is facing a backlash for its proposal, having only recently reversed its decision on burial rights of Muslims following censure from the international community when it made cremation mandatory for those who died of COVID-19. Amb Saad Kattak, Pakistan’s High Commissioner to Sri Lanka tweeted a ban “will only serve as injury to the feelings of ordinary Sri Lankan Muslims and Muslims across the globe”. South African Muslim organisations reportedly have called on their country’s foreign minister to intervene on the proposed ban. As Sri Lanka’s economy is dealing with the economic fallout of COVID-19, high public debt, crippling low growth, further accentuated by global tourism at a standstill, it cannot afford to displease its regional allies nor wealthy tourists from the Gulf Cooperation Council countries.

A more intolerant worldpost COVID

The world regrettably is getting more intolerant, and it is apparent thatintegration within societies will remain a challenge. Tolerance literature suggests thata strong indicator of intolerance is the potential threat associated with a group or practice. It also suggests that when polities and societies take the time and energy to deliberate policy, they better discern the costs of intolerance.As Sri Lanka rebuilds its economy and navigates its internal political challenges, as it readdresses the proposal on the burqa ban, as,indeed,its government has recognised and promised to do—a broader dialogue, consultations with all parties concerned, and consensus remain paramount.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


Vinitha Revi

Vinitha Revi

Dr. Vinitha Revi is an Independent Scholar associated with ORF-Chennai. Her PhD was in International Relations and focused on India-UK relations in the post-colonial period. ...

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