By MYM Siddeek –
“Fear is a distorting mirror in which anything can appear as a caricature of itself, stretched to terrible proportions; once inflamed, the imagination pursues the craziest and most unlikely possibilities. What is most absurd suddenly seems the most probable.” – Stefan Zweig
Is this what happens in Sri Lanka now?
I recently watched an interview given by one of the prominent and educated Buddhist monks in a popular Sri Lankan TV, in which he was expressing his fear about the way the Muslim women wear their attire. His utterance was against the Supreme Court ruling and therefore a law-abiding monk will not make such an utterance in public. We all know the Supreme Court on the 25th July 2014 ordered the Attorney General to issue directives to all public institutions to permit to wear the traditional Muslim cultural attire when entering public places. When the case was taken up for hearing before the Chief Justice Mohan Pieris said that the traditional Muslim attire was well within the identity of the Sri Lankan culture and that Muslim women had a right to wear such attire and it causes harm to none. The Chief Justice also commended the petitioner’s dress and said that the attire was well within the boundaries of decency. Accordingly, the Supreme Court bench ordered the Attorney General to issue instructions to all public institutions not to obstruct people who wear traditional Muslim attire.
In spite of the above court ruling and provisions in the constitution (section 14 (1) (e)), the Muslim women face great criticisms in wearing their cultural attire. On some occasions, they have been subjected to violence as a result. It is very difficult to understand how the Muslim women’s attire affects the daily lives of the other communities? Does it cause any harm to them? Why don’t they accept modesty? Why do they oppose the decency? Isn’t it a politically motivated criticism of the entire Sri Lankan Muslim community to achieve petty political objectives locally and internationally? Why are the educated and decent Sinhala Buddhists and monks silent on this? What is the response of Maha Sangha on this? Does their silence on this give approval for these nasty criticisms?
The above-mentioned monk’s fear was that the government of Saudi Arabia was funding to wear them the way they wear now to ‘Islamise’ Sri Lanka. This is absolute nonsense to misguide the Sinhala Buddhists, I believe. The communal tension we see in Sri Lanka is mainly due to ignorance. We, every Sri Lankan citizen, can play an important role to remove the misconceptions.
It is true that there is a certain degree of influence on the Middle Eastern culture on this cultural transformation of Muslim women’s attire after the economy was opened in 1977 for foreign employment by J. R. Jayewardene’s government. Up to the early 1970s, there were a very few Muslim women who wore Veil and Hijab. This cultural transformation could also be seen in the lifestyles of Sinhala-Buddhists who worked in the Middle Eastern countries in their food, eating habits and hobbies for examples. Even you can see a number of Sinhala Buddhists shop in the supermarkets that sell exclusively Arabian groceries in SL. But there is no evidence to suggest that the attire of Muslim women is funded and influenced by foreign governments. If this is funded by the Middle Eastern governments, why were those governments numb when the non-Muslims killed the Muslims and destroyed their properties including the mosques in Sri Lanka?
Before Veil and Hijab came as part of their daily attire, the Muslim women used to cover their head with ‘Mukkadu’ (used part of the ‘saree’ to cover their head). They very rarely had a separate piece of cloth to cover their head. Today, most of the Muslim women use Veil, Hijab or ‘Mukkadu’ as part of their cultural attire. This is partly their cultural identity too.
Cultural transformation due to foreign link is nothing new to Sri Lankan women’s attire. Today most of the Sri Lankan Sinhala women wear ‘gauma’. This is not Sinhalese. It is Portuguese. The Sinhalese started to wear Portuguese dresses from the early part of 16th century when Portuguese ruled (1505 – 1658) the country. If they oppose foreign dresses, they should wear sarees (the osariya) or redda-haetta (cloth and jacket) only. The Sinhala men should not wear trousers and shirt if they are true Sinhalese. They should wear a sarong or an amude (span cloth), the Sinhalese wear. Therefore, the foreign cultural influence in the way the Sri Lankan wear is unavoidable when they interact with foreigners. That is what happens to the Muslim women and their attire!
In fact, the spread of Islam in South India influenced the Sri Lankan women to wear modest and Islam brought modesty to Sri Lankan women’s attire. We all know when we read the Sri Lankan history how women wore their attire. In the 7th Century Sigiriya, the royal ladies in the frescoes displayed their breasts. The ladies in waiting wore a firm ‘breast bandage’ or thanapatiya.
How the Muslim and other women wear their attire is attributable to cultural transformation influenced by their own interactions with foreigners and therefore, there is nothing to fear.
Final note: Hijab is not just a piece of cloth on their head; it is their whole way of life. It shapes the attitude of the woman who wears it. Today a large number of working women who wear Hijab have broken the misconceptions that the Muslim women are weak, impassionate and powerless by climbing in the hierarchy of high positions. It is their own choice and not forced by anybody. Letting the Muslim women wear the way they want also contributes to the equality and freedom!