By Mass L. Usuf –
This column is not to question the Rule on the non-concealment of the full face. What it aims to do is to examine the circumstances and consequences of this Rule.
Let me begin by saying that covering the face using a garment or the vizor of a helmet or in any other way can be a hindrance to establish the identity of a person. Therefore, it has to be removed. Let me also state at the outset that national security is of utmost important. In this context, if a female has to reveal her face for purpose of identification, it is imperative that such identification is facilitated.
Ours is a country which had experienced a war spanning nearly three decades which ended in 2009. Those who lived through this brutal period of mayhem and pandemonium would recollect how the entire country was living in mortal fear. Our courageous armed forces were then fighting one of the cruellest separatist movements in the world. There were suicide bombers at that time too. Their atrocities over the period of war saw the destruction of the country’s infrastructure and the gruesome annihilation of innocent human lives. The death toll increasing with every attack. They were so daring that their suicide bombers did not hesitate to take away even the life of a sitting President, the late R. Premadasa.
Colour Code ‘Red’
There were security barriers and check points all over the country. Random checks of private vehicles, public transport and other commercial conveyances were almost a daily occurrence. Cordon and search operations were common. Such was the heightened state of security in the country. If it was in the United States, the threat level would have been raised to ‘Severe risk’. This is the highest threat level colour coded, ‘Red’ in their threat level scale which consists of five colour-coded threat levels.
Here lies an interesting anecdote. This country which had experienced such testing times and in a Red Alert situation almost throughout, never found it expedient at that time to ban the full-face cover – an attire worn by the Muslim woman.
It is well known that the declaration of emergency law was triggered by the despicable attack on 21st April 2019. A Proclamation was made by His Excellency the President by virtue of the powers vested in him by Section 2 of the Public Security Ordinance (Chapter 40) (as amended) by Gazette No. 2120/3 of 22 April, 2019 declaring that the provisions of Part II of the Public Security Ordinance shall come into operation. In layman terms declaring a state of emergency in the country.
By a further Gazette Notification No. 2120/5 of 22 April, 2019, he published the Regulations made under Section 5 of the Public Security Ordinance (Chapter 40). These Regulations were called the Emergency (Miscellaneous Provisions and Powers) Regulation, No. 1 of 2019.
The Ban On The Full Face Cover
Following the above Gazette notifications, on 29 April 2019 by Gazette No.: No. 2121/1, he chose to make certain amendments to the Gazette Extraordinary No. 2120/5, of April 22, 2019. The amendment was by way of the insertion of the following new regulations immediately after regulation 32, which shall have effect as regulation 32A. The relevant Rule, read as follows:
(a) No person shall wear in any public place any garment, clothing or such other material concealing the full face which will in any manner cause any hindrance to the identification of a person.
(b) For the purpose of this paragraph –
“full face” means the whole face of a person including the ears;
Well, were the attackers of Easter Sunday concealing their full faces? No such evidence can be elicited from the various video footages that were shown on television. Here lies the question, why then was the face cover banned? And, banned so swiftly.
It is useful to the analysis to note that only a minute fraction of the women used to wear the face cover. Humour has it that since the attackers were wearing jeans and t-shirts and were carrying haversacks, these are the items that should have been banned.
Government And The Media
This country had witnessed several blunders been committed by the authorities during the recent past. One more in this streak of carelessness is the government’s failure to explain clearly to the public about the ban on face cover. Especially in relation to the practice of the Muslim women.
Try asking an average Sri Lankan Sinhalese or Tamil person whether he or she knows the meaning of all these terms – ‘Burqa’, ‘Nikab’, ‘Hijab’, ‘Head Scarf’ or ‘Shawl’? Whether he or she knows the differences between these? The response will certainly draw a blank face. The reason is that they have no need to know. Their ignorance is fair and reasonable.
When the public is ignorant of it, is it not the responsibility of the government to ensure that people understand what they are communicating to the people as laws? After all the rule has been gazetted to apply to the citizens of this country. The public does not access the Gazette notification to ascertain the detailed information about the nature of the ban. They will neither be interested to get an understanding of the definition of what is meant by ‘full face’ as referred to in the amendment. Therefore, they obviously are in the dark in relation to the nature of the ban.
Being well aware of the ignorance of the people in this regard, is it not the duty of the media to educate the people? Aggravating the situation, at a highly sensitive time like this, was the gross irresponsibility of the media. They were not concerned about educating public about what represents a ‘Burqa’, ‘Nikab’, ‘Hijab’, ‘Head Scarf’ or ‘Shawl’.
Fear, Confusion And Discrimination
This matter deals with a delicate religio-cultural practice. It impacts on the way a person chooses to safeguard and protect her self-respect, dignity and modesty. To display one’s self is not the call of the society. It is purely a personal decision.
Also, it is something that affects the practice of a minority within a minority community. The confusion caused in the minds of the public by this hurried amendment to the regulations has had serious consequences. Muslim women who have not concealed their faces have been harassed in an unprecedented manner in the history of this country. The extent of intimidation, threats, insults thrown at innocent women are absolutely unacceptable. There cannot be any compromise to permit this situation to continue in this manner if we call ourselves as civilised people.
There were several reports of physical handling of Muslim women by the men at various places. Instances were many when Muslim women whose faces can be seen were denied access to super markets, public institutions, hospitals etc. demanding that they remove the head scarf or the hijab or even in some instances the shawl. This is a gross violation of fundamental rights of these people.
The constitution states:
12 (3) No person shall, on the grounds of race, religion, language, caste, sex or any one of such grounds, be subject to any disability, liability, restriction or condition with regard to access to shops, public restaurants, hotels, places of public entertainment and places of public worship of his own religion.
This irresponsible act of the government and the highly biased and lackadaisical approach of the media have contributed to the discrimination of the Muslim women. Further, these have influenced the rapid deterioration of inter-ethnic relations in Sri Lanka. To corner the Muslims this way is to push them into the embrace of the extremists. I do not think this country would ever want to tread on this dreaded path.
Vigilante groups have taken the law into their hands. This is not by accident but by clear design. Is the government going to continue like this by not holding those violating the rights of its citizens accountable? Is the state machinery encouraging one section of the people to act with impunity against another? When will the government decide to uphold the respect for the law and maintain law and order with equality under these circumstances?
Is not the government aware that the constitution states:
“12. (1) All persons are equal before the law and are entitled to the equal protection of the law.”