By Lakmal Harischandra –
There is an interesting video having a viral circulation these days of a Burqa clad Muslim woman challenging a man (reportedly a Sinhala Christian), who was videoing her in her garb at Arpico in Wattala. He was pointing accusing fingers at the woman in her Niqab stating that it is prohibited under country’s laws whereas she was seen to be telling him that it is not. When he was saying that he can only see her eyes , the woman appears to be asking him what more does he want to see in her? She also protested against videoing her which impinges on her privacy.This whole incident has polarized the debate in the social media, projected as Sinhala vs. Muslim, with one side taking up the position that the Muslim woman has in fact acted in a way against the Sinhala race whereas the Man, a Sinhala Christian has acted in defence of the Sinhala race. The social media is agog with hate posts reminding the people of the Eater Sunday attacks by ‘Muslim’ extremists( we forget the fact that those who inflicted those attacks were donned in jeans/slacks and not in burqa. The burqa ban only diverted the attention away from government’s culpability). The other side of the debate however says the women merely acted bravely in defence of her rights to wear what she likes as long as it is not in any way illegal. She says that the prohibition was taken away after a brief period in the aftermath of Easter Sunday tragedy and offers to submit herself to any inspection if there are any security fears.
I need to state that I have my own reservations about the suitability of this dress for a country like Sri Lanka. According to my limited knowledge and my inquiries from my Muslim friends, the religion of Islam too does not prescribe this form of dress compulsorily for the Muslim women.; rather it is a matter of choice. Therefore this explains the reason why majority of Muslim women do not wear this form of dress (either Burqa or Niqab). There is a scholarly debate going among Islamic theologians too on this sensitive subject. Even the Ulema Council in Sri Lanka has told the Muslims to exercise discretion in the matter of face cover in the context of security. In particular, traditionalists and reformists have their own arguments. Anyway, I am aware that Hijab is not a particular design as understood by many. But, Muslim women have the total freedom to choose the colour, design and pattern of their dress according to the changing context. The ultimate purpose is to protect the society as a whole and promote modest dressing and behaviour. It creates a barrier between the sexes and allows us to conduct our lives with modesty, dignity and respect.
Having said this, Muslim women, like any other women of other races have the constitutional right to exercise their cultural and religious identity. If a Muslim woman chose to wear her dress of preference within the confines of the law, there is no legal basis to others to challenge a Muslim woman, initiating another anti-Muslim hate campaign in the process. Whatever our likes and dislikes of a form of dress, the question revolves around the fact whether any citizen has the right to police other citizens on false pretences. It should be left to the law enforcement authorities to enforce the law. In this case, it is clear that the prohibition against face covers was removed after a brief period of prohibition last year. In the above case, the Muslim woman was, in a civilized way explaining this reality to the man and says she was acting within the law and that she is willing to go before the Police if the Man wants her to prove this fact.
Despite many misconceptions about Muslim forms of dress include Hijab as well as Burqa, my numerous discussions with Muslim sisters reveal that women who wear hijab point out many benefits to be gained from adhering to the Islamic dress code. Some describe wearing hijab as being “set free” from society’s unrealistic expectations. They are no longer thought of as sexual objects, but are desired for their intellect. They are no longer valued for their looks or body shape but for their personality and character. Women wearing hijab report that it minimises sexual harassment in the workplace. Thus this dress is not imposed upon them as popularly believed; rather those sisters have chosen. This should be respected.
It has been a public nuisance as seen in recent times that several ‘holier than thou’ characters have taken upon themselves to act as un-official Police to enforce their versions of patriotism, morality, social rules of conduct and ethics on others. Particularly the monks and Sinhala social media warriors are taking the forefront in this regard. This is a dangerous trend and will lead to the re-enactment of anti- Muslim hate episodes which took a worrying turn after the Post- Easter Sunday developments and also in the context of the present Sinhala supremacist prone government in power. In the case of this Burqa incident, it is dangerous to make it out as an affront or a challenge to the Sinhalese race as portrayed in the social media. It is not, as the Muslim woman was clearly re-iterating her rights as a citizen of this country with no malice intentions to the Sinhalese people as her dialogue in Sinhala, proved without doubt. Trying to turn this incident into a racial or religious hate incident by hate peddlers in the guise of social media warriors should be condemned and those responsible should be brought before law for having instigated racial and religious hatred.
Those so-called Sinhala disciplinarians who attempt to discipline other communities should be asked whether the present day Sinhalese are adopting Buddhist dress codes. Many distinguished members of the Maha Sangha have lamented about the deteriorating dress codes among young Sinhala girls even when visiting the temples. I have seen these disgraceful sights even at Kelaniya and Bellanwila very often. The monks have praised the Muslim dress codes as much civilized and modest. Perhaps , they want Muslims to adopt ancient Sinhala traditions.
Muslim Women Cover vs. Ancient Sinhala traditions on Women’s Dress!
Not long ago an incident was reported from Peradeniya University in which a fiery feminist fresher from Colombo stood up to a typical campus male senior who tried to rag her, and sent him away with his tail between his legs.The senior male had asked the fresher why she was clad in a tight pair of denim jeans, and advised her to come next day “wearing a gauma (frock) in the traditional Sinhala manner”. The reply was swift and sarcastic:”What d’you mean gauma? Gauma is not Sinhalese; it’s Portuguese. Then I should wear the osariya (Kandyan saree) or perhaps redda-haetta (cloth and jacket). How come you are wearing trouser and shirt? Perhaps, you should wear a sarong or maybe an amude (span cloth) if you want to dress in the true Sinhala manner. Amidst sounds of muted laughter the senior male beat a hasty retreat”.
The above incident took place about few years ago and is symptomatic of the utter confusion that many people have about what constitutes the authentic national costume or true Sinhala/Tamil dress; despite the fact that it is doubtful whether such a singular mode of dress ever existed at any time in our island’s history. Dr. Nira Wickremasinghe, in an article titled “Some Comments On Dress In Sri Lanka”, reveals some surprising facts, especially on women’s attire in ancient Lanka. She details the topless tradition of Sri Lankan women according to evidence presented by historical sources. The saree and jacket combination that is today worn by women of all classes throughout the island underwent various changes. Apart from some indirect references made to dress in the Mahawamsa, there is hardly any authentic record of the manner in which women are clad in Sri Lanka before the sixth Century Sigiriya frescos. What is certain is that the rule of changelessness did not apply to women’s clothing.”
“In a Hindu-Buddhist society it is difficult to assess with precision at what point semi-nudity became taboo. The Dhammapadatha Katha relates an incident which took place in the Tenth Century when a lay devotee, Rohini, wore a blouse before Anuruddha Thera only to cover marks left by a skin disease. This indicates that it was still unusual for women to cover their body. Women’s dress was then a cloth round the hip leaving the body bare from waist upwards.” Nira writes that by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries it was acceptable to remain uncovered at home but when going out to wear an upper garment. At this stage the cloth was worn with a separate garment covering the breasts thrown over the shoulders, which evolved into the shawl and breast band. How was it that the Hindu-Buddhist culture in ancient Lanka underwent such changes by the 14th Century so that an upper garment for women became a feature when leaving the house?
A. L. Bhasham, in his monumental work The Wonder That Was India, notes that for many centuries Indian women did not wear upper garments except during winter in certain parts of northern India. He quotes the example of the Nayar tribal women of south India, who until the mid-20th Century went about topless. Bhasham implies that the Muslim invasions were what altered the dress codes of Indian women. In Sri Lanka one may note that there was a great deal of Muslim influence in the Kurunegala kingdom in the first half of the 14th Century, with even a Muslim monarch ascending the throne as Prince Vaththimi in about 1320 A.D. and ruling for nine years, according to the Kumnegala Vistharaya. Nira also writes of the impact of Western influences from the 16th Century onwards which had the effect of making Sri Lankan women more conservative in their attire.
By the late 19th Century and the early 20th Century came the so-called Hindu and Buddhist reformers, Arumuga Navalar among the Tamils and Anagarika Dharmapala among the Sinhalese, who imposed the puritanical Victorian morality of 19th Century Britain on Sri Lankan society. Even since then the average Sri Lankan is thoroughly confused, believing that the traditional mode of attire is to hide the bodily features as much as possible, when in fact the sensible and liberal tradition of Hindu-Buddhist culture in ancient Lanka, that prevailed from the 5th Century B.C. to the 19th Century A.D., was quite the opposite. (source: http://livingheritage.org/toplessness.htm)
Muslims too should be allowed to wear their traditional clothes!
Modesty, sometimes known as demureness, is a mode of dress and deportment which intends to avoid the encouraging of sexual attraction in others. Most discussion of modesty involves clothing. The criteria for acceptable modesty and decency have relaxed continuously in much of the world since the nineteenth century. Historically, however conservative dressing is most frequently associated with religious adherence. Observant Muslim women often wear a version of the hijab and loose-fitting, figure-obscuring clothing in public settings; and women in traditional Christian communities, from Amish to Mennonite, wear long dresses and, sometimes, some form of head covering. There is no set Buddhist dress codes, although modest clothing is best for both men and women. Thus, Muslim Women too should be allowed to follow their own traditions on dress code. Most wear their commonly known hijab (covering their body except the face and hands) while a miniscule number wear Niqab (covering the whole body except the eyes). If anyone can’ under dress’ as we commonly see, why can’t they ‘over-dress’ too?
Under international human rights law, everyone has the right to freedom of expression and freedom to manifest their religion or beliefs. The way people dress can be an important expression of their religious, cultural or personal identity or beliefs. As a general rule, the right to freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression entail that all people should be free to choose what – and what not – to wear. Governments have an obligation to respect, protect and ensure every individual’s right to express their beliefs or personal convictions or identity. They must create an environment in which every person can make that choice free of coercion. States should take measures to protect individuals from being coerced to dress in specific ways by these so-called social media warriors or self-appointed un-official Police in saffron clothes. Under international human rights law, the exercise of the right to freedom of expression and to manifest one’s religion or belief may only be subject to restrictions which meet a stringent three-part test:
1. they must be prescribed by law;
2. address a specific legitimate purpose permitted by international law; and
3. be demonstrably necessary and proportionate for that purpose. Moreover, any restrictions must not be discriminatory or put in jeopardy the right itself or undermine other human rights.