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.
spotlight, however, would soon turn on women.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
was unambiguous — the abaya (full-length, gown-like dress) worn by Muslim women
the circular was withdrawn after the Human Rights Commission intervened.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.
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.
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.
Senanayake, a professor of obstetrics and gynaecology, in an interview to the
local Daily Mirror, debunked the “sterilisation story” as being “highly
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.
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