By S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole –
Violence is designed to challenge our democratic values, which were formed and endorsed in saner times. When bombs are set off they bring out some of our natural instincts for safety and, in the process, weaken our conneions to our values and erode our freedoms. When we allow that to happen, we become like the bombers who then win.
The picture here states that customers in burqa have no entry to the grocery shop. It challenges the freedoms our citizens enjoy to choose their dress, as we interpret their religion for them, telling them (as some of us are doing) that Islam does not demand full-body covering. In the end, the erosion of Muslims’ fundamental rights will be an erosion of our own as we get used to this erosion.
To get terminology right, the burqa is a full-body covering that includes a mesh over the face. The niqab is a full-face veil that leaves an opening only for the eyes. The hijab covers the hair and neck but not the face. The chador covers the body but not the face.
Arguments are advanced that we may impose these restrictions in a time of national crisis. No! The Right to Religion, in a decent society, is always non-derogable.
Religious Symbols in Public
Wearing the burqa is, in a way, announcing your religion. Prohibiting it can make those in minority in that setting feel alone. There has been much legal opinion on this. Taking from my book Ethics for Professionals (Cognella Press, San Diego, CA, 2018):
1. Christian women wearing the crucifix at work: Nadia Eweida in the UK was asked in 2006 to remove or cover a Christian symbol, a crucifix, from her neck and when she refused she was put on leave without pay. She lost in the British courts but prevailed in the European Court of Human Rights in 2013. The ruling said everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; this right includes freedom to change religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others, and in public or private, to manifest ones religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance. Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others. That distinguished court ruled that she suffered discrimination at work over her Christian beliefs.
2. The Sikhs’ Kesh (uncut hair) and the Kirpan (knife). Sikhism requires among other things the Kesh and the Kirpan to be considered a Sikh. Although the turban is not explicitly specified it goes as an accoutrement of the uncut hair. Exemption from uniforms with the Buckingham Palace Guard allows the turban. To date, the Sikhs have no dispensation from carrying their knives, such as when boarding aircraft and must check them in for the hold with their luggage. A 2014 Ontario, Canada law refused exemptions from a crash-helmet law to Canadians, ruling that Ontario’s law does not infringe on the “Charter of Rights and Freedoms or the Ontario Human Rights Code.” However, Alberta, Canada exempts Sikhs from wearing a crash helmet.
3. Muslim clothing: The US on this front is advancing in strides with a June 2015 Supreme Court ruling that Abercombie & Fitch could be “sued for discrimination for not hiring a woman because she wore a hijab that went against its ‘look policy’.” The court declared, “Religious practice is one of the protected characteristics that cannot be accorded disparate treatment and must be accommodated.” This ‘look policy’ banned caps and black clothing. The litigant Samantha Elauf’s dress for the interview in 2008 – a T-shirt and jeans was all right but her headscarf as a Muslim woman was deemed not to fit the policy, which does not allow caps, terming them ‘too informal for the image we project.’
Thus, bans are allowed only on grounds of safety and must be necessary for public safety. And they need laws to back the bans. Have we reached that point to ban Muslim clothing and hurt their sensibilities? I think not.
GA Colombo and the Election Commission
These religious restrictions on women are no longer by odd fellows playing the hero to save their race and country. A law on the ban is in the works in Parliament. Even before that GA and District Secretary for Colombo, Mr. Sunil Kannangara, has jumped the gun and entered the debate, issuing a notice that women wearing a face covering are prohibited entry to the Colombo District Secretariat. What Mr. Kannangara has banned is the burqa and the niqab. Sensible provisions have not been made, as in civilised airports, to have a woman official take a look at the face of women donning religious face-coverings.
GA Colombo, by virtue of his office, is usually the Chief Returning Officer put in charge by the Election Commission (EC). His actions reflect on us. Worse, the EC has some 24 district offices and the Colombo District Office building was recently shifted in part from Rajagiriya to the District Secretariat. In effect, the ban applies to the EC Offices when the EC’s object is to spread and uphold the values of democracy. Now a Colombo Muslim woman in burqa cannot come to us to sort out issues with her voting rights.
The spillover to Sri Lankan democracy is clear. The EC has been pro-democracy. A young executive who comes to work in a hijab was absolutely fearful of coming to work, given what is going on in Colombo. The EC gave her special leave. That is what we were.
And now? Many officials under us want the ban at every Election Office. They say they are fearful that a woman coming in burqa or niqab might be having a bomb. Metal detecting machines are sold out and not quickly available, I argued for closing the offices till sanity returns but was warned that we may be surcharged for the salaries. I am not convinced, because then we should also be surcharged for giving special leave to that young woman discouraged from expressing her religion. And how does looking at a woman’s face prevent a bomb under her clothes? Are we to ban ministers from EC offices because a bomb might be hidden under their sarong?
I have argued that it is a violation of such a woman’s religious right and we cannot comply with the GA’s ban. We are an independent Commission and cannot be subject to the vagaries of GA/Colombo.
The French Example
It was argued at the EC that France is a democratic country and, if it is OK for France to ban the burqa, it should be OK for us. But it is well to recall that a survey published by France’s Le Figaro last October, found 33 percent of French citizens wanting a greater role in French politics for far-right leader Marine Le Pen, matching former Prime Minister Francois Fillon and IMF Director Christine Lagarde, while President Francois Hollande, got a mere 23 percent.
Europe is being inundated with racism as people of colour, especially from Turkey soon, move in through previous liberal policies, leading in part to Brexit. As right-wingers gain in popularity, moderates in a gross error of judgment adopt misbegotten racist policies. This is what we see in Sri Lanka. Other countries’ racism is never our example to emulate.
France is a particularly bad example to follow at this point. A 2004 law in France bans the wearing or displaying of overt religious symbols in schools, including the wearing of headscarves by schoolgirls, while the French Council of State that advises the government warned that the ban could be incompatible with international human rights laws and the country’s own constitution. The crucifix case from Britain proves the point. We surely do not want to traverse that path, but are inexorably being pushed in that direction by the bombings. Will we ban scarves too as France has?
The EC’s Jaffna Office is in the Jaffna Kachcheri but I think GA/Jaffna has a rational head on his shoulders forged by his war-time experience as a Tamil. Tamils will not forget – must not forget – how during the war we were ordered out of Colombo by a madman for similarly flimsy reasons as the burqa ban on security grounds and only the courts saved us. Then there are other EC District Offices in separate buildings. For now, we have decided to go on as we are till 3 May when the third member of the EC returns after his study tour of Indian elections when we will have a proper quorum for an EC meeting. In the meantime, the Colombo Kachcheri will compromise our image and even our status as an independent Commission having to follow a Government Agent.
In the meantime, we must be strong – strong not to beat up people under suspicion but to fight our own devils in our heads, to not allow the bombers to win by transforming us into monsters like them, trampling on other people’s rights.