By Meera Srinivasan
June 08, 2019
Hours after the April 21 Easter attacks in Sri Lanka, the government — which had failed to act upon prior warnings of a potential terror threat — heightened security across the island. Upping their game, troops nabbed suspects on the run.
The spotlight, however, would soon turn on women.
It began with a ban on the face veil worn by some Muslim women. President Maithripala Sirisena said it was in the interest of “national security and public safety”. Cops would be able to identify these individuals easily, said those justifying the move.
But Muslim women, whom the ban directly impacted, seemed divided on the matter. Those who were supportive of the ban gave different reasons — some saw it as a way of expressing solidarity with the Christian community that was in grief following the church attacks. Some others welcomed the ban because it disallowed a “conservative” attire they have been vehemently resisting for long.
Those opposing it said the move infringed on their rights and fundamental freedoms. “None of the Easter suspects wore a Niqab (face veil). In fact, the CCTV footage shows many of them wearing a pair of jeans and a T-shirt,” they argued, wondering how women, especially Muslim women, had become ready targets.
The issue of attire came up repeatedly — for instance, a group of Muslim teachers were transferred from a government school for wearing the Hijab (headscarf) and supermarkets barred entry to women sporting a headscarf.
There was yet another attempt, more recently, by the Ministry of Public Administration to regulate government employees’ work attire — allowing women to wear only the sari or the Osari, the Kandyan-style drape of the sari.
The subtext was unambiguous — the abaya (full-length, gown-like dress) worn by Muslim women was prohibited.
However, the circular was withdrawn after the Human Rights Commission intervened. The Commission said such a dress code imposed could impact women from minority communities who do not habitually wear sari or the osari, compelling them to leave public sector employment.
Post the Easter bombings, women’s attires, their bodies and mobility became recurring themes in conversations that were ostensibly on national security and women’s reproductive health. It was hard to rule out discrimination.
The allegation facing gynaecologist and obstetrician Seigu Siyabdeen Mohammed Safi, attached to the state-run Kurunegala Teaching Hospital, is a case in point. Women in this Sinhala-majority district have accused the doctor of stealthily sterilising thousands of women while performing C-section deliveries — construed as an attempt by a Muslim doctor to control the population of the Sinhala community. Significantly, the doctor was arrested on May 24, on charges of accumulating massive wealth and assets and, later, authorities called on the public to make any complaint they had, of alleged sterilisation, against him.
Hemantha Senanayake, a professor of obstetrics and gynaecology, in an interview to the local Daily Mirror, debunked the “sterilisation story” as being “highly unlikely”.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has said the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act would be amended to increase the minimum age of marriage to 18 for Muslim women, as an attempt to unify personal laws. Muslim women have been campaigning to reform the Act for three decades. However, the sudden, heightened interest in reform was “motivated by prejudice, majoritarian entitlement and crass opportunism to capitalise at a time when the community is feeling vulnerable,” said the Muslim Personal Law Reform Action Group.
The group has been struggling not just with a stifling law and those prone to reductive readings of their demands. It has also been challenging its own religious leadership, such as the All Ceylon Jamiyyath ul Ulema, the apex religious body of Islamic scholars which, in its pre-Id guidelines, asked women to “refrain” from Id-related shopping and instead, get the men to assist them.
Meera Srinivasan is The Hindu’s Colombo correspondent.