By Sharmini Serasinghe -
With the ‘Halal’ issue exhausting all the hot-air being blown around it, now here comes the Muslim dress code to the fore. Muslim women are now being pinched, pushed and spat on because of their choice of dress in the form of a long loose over-garment called the ‘abaya’.
It was not until the effervescent Saffron Brigade (Bodu Bala Sena) drew attention to it did anyone pay much heed to the ‘abaya’ which is a common sight especially in urban areas of the country. Upon further investigation into the relatively recent popularity of this outer-garment favoured by some Muslim ladies in Lanka one finds significantly varying reasons for it.
Of the three leading ethnic groups in the country it is only the Muslims of Lanka who bear a religious rather than a linguistic, ethnic or racial identity. Unlike the Sinhalese and Tamils, the Moslems cannot generally be identified by their language, dress or cultural identity. Therefore Lankan Muslims until recently assimilated inconspicuously into the rest of Lankan society and were never regarded as a ‘threat’ by the ‘other’.
It is interesting to note that this relatively new trend by some Lankan Muslims to embrace the Middle Eastern styles of the Arab dress code in the form of the ‘abaya’ and ‘thobe’ (long loose shirt for men) etc., is especially seen amongst the younger and more urban Muslim men and women. Others among the older generation still favour the sari draped in the customary Muslim fashion and shirt, trouser or sarong for the men.
This trend of a ‘different’ dress code denotes a stronger outward expression of the Muslim religious identity. Therefore it has drawn greater attention to the Lankan Muslims rather negatively in the eyes of some, as a conspicuous social ‘other’ as it makes them more ‘visible’ and different. This unfortunately seems to have formed a psychological barrier even between some among other communities and the Lankan Muslims.
In civilized society one’s attire constitutes a very significant form of non-verbal communication, more so in a multi-cultural one, where what one wears conveys nonverbal clues about his or her personality. In such a context the ‘abaya’ and ‘thobe’ which are ‘culturally new’ to Lanka, appear to have riled not only the Saffron Brigade but some among other communities as well.
It appears that to them the messages conveyed through this attire is “we are different from you” or “we are not one of you”. Hence the general message conveyed through this attire to the ‘other’ is interpreted to be one of aloofness, from other ethnic communities.
I personally know several Muslim ladies who until recently dressed like the ‘other’. However since donning the ‘abaya’ they have been socially marginalised by some. They are no longer invited by their former schoolmates to parties or other social gatherings. From what I have been told, it appears that the ‘others’ feel uncomfortable with their friends now covered from head to toe.
This is indeed a sad state of affairs and does not augur well for peace and unity in a multi ethno-religious country; but it is not an issue that time cannot heal. Nevertheless in the interim this could provide sufficient ammunition to the likes of the Saffron Brigade to drive their point home. This in turn makes the Lankan Muslim today, extremely vulnerable through their conspicuous visibility to the psychotics.
Lanka’s Eastern Muslims
On a recent visit to the Ampara district in the East Coast I gained a much wider perspective of how and why some Lankan Moslems have embraced the Arabian mode of attire. And strangely I didn’t see as many dressed in the ‘abaya’ and ‘thobe’ as I expected to, in an area predominantly populated by Muslims. Save a few the others whom I met and spoke to were dressed in sari, shalwar kameez, sarong, trousers and shirt.
From what I gathered it appears, that given the significant number of Lankan Moslems who have lived and worked in the Middle East, where they had to adhere to a strict dress code prevalent in some of those countries, on returning home, continued the dress code.
This has now become a ‘trend’. It makes them stand out as financially well-to-do, due to their employment abroad, and therefore sends a silent message to others in their community, that they now belong to a higher social status. The middle class Muslims refer to them derogatorily as the “new rich”.
There are other economic reasons as well. I met a mother of four daughters Aiza in Pottuvil who herself was dressed in a sari draped in the customary Muslim fashion. She confessed that since her offspring decided on their own to don the ‘abaya’, as they regarded it ‘fashionable’, there was no longer a need to spend money on a variety of clothing since this long loose over-garment covered it all.
The advantage of the ‘abaya’ says Aiza is that one could wear even faded and darned clothes beneath it, and no one will ever know. Even the men, she says, don’t require many shirts, trousers and sarongs as before, since a minimum of two sets of the ‘Thobe’ (long loose shirt and trouser or sarong) are sufficient. As a result the family as a whole is now able to afford three square meals a day on the money they save on clothes.
Then there is another section among the Muslims that attributes the new Muslim dress code to a heightened awareness of ‘Muslim issues’ around the world and therefore a greater sense of membership in the global community of all Muslims. This is a relatively small section of Muslims with a ‘political’ mindset, who displays bouts of intolerance and extremism against the minority Sinhalese and Tamils in the East, in an attempt to scare them away from the area. As a result the handful of Sinhalese and Tamil residents in the area has formed a bond in unity against the aggressor.
Whatever the reasons Lankan Muslims have for adopting a ‘different’ mode of attire, is well within their rights as human beings. After all Lanka is still supposed to be a democracy and a civilized society where all are equal, therefore no one has the right to intrude into the privacy and freedom of another.
Let those rabble rousers be advised against using superficial and lame excuses such as a dress-code of a minority community to drive a wedge between our society and create unwarranted mayhem as a result. Politicians of the past have created enough chaos between the Sinhalese and Tamils let not their successors expand on that by creating disunity with the Muslims as well.