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The Sri Lanka Niqab ban and the politics of distraction

“zorro inverted”. Photo by Henrik Dacquin via Flickr(CC BY 2.0).

This post by Shaahima Raashid originally appeared on Groundviews, an award-winning citizen journalism website in Sri Lanka. An edited version is published below as part of a content-sharing agreement with Global Voices.

As of last Monday, Sri Lanka is taking a seat at the table next to a list of 13 other countries across the world who have passed legislation banning the niqab or face veil.

Amidst incensed murmurs from certain parliamentarians, and following a discussion with the country’s main Islamic theological body, the All Ceylon Jammiatul Ulema (ACJU), the President’s office has announced that ‘any garment or item which obstructs the identification of a person’s face would be barred.’ Sri Lanka has been under emergency regulations following the Easter Sunday attacks which killed over 250 people. The ban will hold until emergency regulations are lifted.

Ever since the identification of the all-male terrorists behind the massacre as members of militant group ISIS, Muslim women — for some inexplicable reason — have borne the brunt. Instances of headscarved Muslim women being refused entry at various supermarkets and prominent establishments were followed by the usual scaremongering, with alarmist infographics doing the rounds and yet again ‘educating’ the public on the differences between the burqa, hijab, and chador.

A victory indeed for both anti-Muslim voices, as well as for many within the Muslim community who seek to dissociate themselves from a supposedly dated form of Islam— one that they claim has no bearing on inherent Sri Lankan Muslim identity.  This is a view that discards the notion that any religious or ethnic identity is fluid, in flux, and subject to constant evolution.

The main winner of the grand slam, however, is the current political establishment, members of which are probably high-fiving each other as a result of this kneejerk symbol-politics manoeuvre, on having supposedly successfully placated the public and eased their fears of homegrown terrorism. It is a move that bleeds hypocrisy, for it subliminally ‘others’ an already marginalised segment of a minority community at the same time that the government is PSA’ing for peace and coexistence in this time of crisis.

What is most insulting to the intelligence of our society, however, is that amidst all this brouhaha, few have questioned the actual relevance of this new ban to the current state of our security affairs.

No eyewitness report or CCTV footage showed that any of the suicide bombers from any of the coordinated attacks across the country were on that day wearing the niqab/burqa/chador at the time of inflicting their terror. They were in fact dressed in men's attire, with faces completely exposed. It might also be useful to add here that they weren’t dressed in traditional Muslim man garb either.

How, then, did the face-veiling Muslim woman get pushed under the bus as the most identifiable sign of radicalism?

It is obvious that the government was cornered into passing this legislation, as was the ACJU in having to support this move. While all communities have only praise for the exceptional work of the security forces in tracking down the attackers within just hours, the country’s elected leadership was in dire need of a win following what many experts claim was a massive intelligence failure, a blunder involving the wrongful identification of a terror suspect, and incompetence in the handling of events overall. A distraction was desperately required, so something needed to give — and it just so happened that the niqab-wearing Muslim woman was the easiest scapegoat.

To an outsider unfamiliar with Muslim religious symbolism, the face-veil can come across as alien, even unnerving. And while our first instinct is to ‘other’ such women in an attempt to deal with the discomfort of dealing with an unknown, a woman out in the street in a niqab is — for as long as anyone can remember — most certainly not an oddity that has compelled anyone to stop and recite their final rites.

The misguided belief that the face veil is a marker of extremism isn’t based on any empirical research. If studies were to be carried out, results would show that Muslim women in general — let alone those who cover their faces — have had minimal, if any, association with acts of terror committed in all the countries that have banned them.

Contrarily, there is a clear proven relationship between terrorist attacks and increases in recorded Islamophobic incidents against Muslims, with women being disproportionately targeted. One can dare to infer that being visibly Muslim carries a greater risk to oneself than to the people around oneself.

The niqab ban has been put in place as a security measure, they say – a flexing of muscle towards any semblance of radicalisation that will apparently deter any future acts of terror in the country. But the perpetuating of this ideological hegemony is doing Muslim women no favours. If anything, the ban is a wholly counterproductive one, in that it ostracises an already marginalised segment of a minority community – a sliver of a percentage of the 10 percent that is the country’s Muslim population.

If, as is commonly believed, veiled Muslim women are already being persecuted, the ban will serve only to confine these women further to their homes, under the control of the men accused of governing their lives, and further disconnected from the ability to assimilate with the rest of society. Even more worrying is the fact that there are studies which link living in environments that are aggressively policed on the basis of belief with radicalisation.

The absurdity of the mismatch between the attacks and the niqab ban aside, this in itself should be a war cry for secular feminists advocating for everyone’s basic right to the civil freedoms of a liberal society. Where, at this moment, are the proponents and ambassadors so wholly soaked in the ‘Muslim woman saviour complex?’ A segment of Muslim women has been forbidden from wearing what they feel best represents their Sri Lankan Muslim identity. They were not consulted before this legislation was passed, nor were they given the chance to show their willingness to cooperate in instances where identification was required.

Ludicrously, discourses surrounding veiled Muslim women are lobbed back and forth according to the convenience of the times. In times of peace, such women are oppressed and subservient to patriarchal whims and fancies, while in the immediate aftermath of a terror attack they are hostile and threatening, capable of devising all kinds of evil. They are either victims of violence, or the perpetrators of it.

This age-old preoccupation with Muslim women’s attire is in actuality a gross conflation of conservatism with extremism. In claiming that a strip of cloth holds the answer to combatting a severe global threat is trivialising the greater issues at hand. If there were a direct correlation between the attacks and veiled individuals, legislation forbidding the covering of the face in public would be wholly justified. But there is none.

Muslim women shouldn’t be faulted for the chinks in the state’s armour. In not being able to answer the hard questions of accountability, in their failure to act on available intelligence and lack of general good governance, those at the top should leave well alone and consider hiding their own faces instead.

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