Colombo Telegraph

Moratuwa Niqab: Unveiling The Facts

By Khalid Muhaimin

Khalid Muhaimin

Niqab Is Not A Controversy But A Ban On It Is A Controversy

While Sri Lanka is struggling to come out from the remnants of its brutal ethnic-conflict, its ethnic harmony after the war is slowly fading away and likely to slip into jeopardy.  Once the war is over, the government should have taken serious measures to reconcile the differences between ethnicities within her country. But in contrary to this, government had turned mute over this matter while remaining silence over the emergence of Buddhist Extremist Group which is posing a critical threat to the basic fabric of the ethnic communities and their harmony. This status quo causing racism all over the country specially on the minorities- particularly Muslim minority which has become more vulnerable to racism in Sri Lanka in recent years. It is very sad to see Islam and Muslim are being targeted all over the country and their religious and cultural values are questioned and ridiculed by these elements.

In line of these events, University of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka duly created by and under the Act No 16 of 1978, has banned the Muslim female students from wearing Niqab, a type of Muslim veil that conceals the whole face, other than the eyes. This ban has come in the dawn of CHOGM 2013 and a time where the government is under immense pressure by the international community for its alleged war crimes and Human right abuses. These extremist elements are creating Islamophobia. This racist syndrome is widespread all over the country nowadays.

University of Moratuwa is the country’s leading technological higher education institute excelling both locally and globally-as they claim. But it is something strange to see these intellectuals are also victimized by the above mentioned syndrome. On December 02, 2013 the Vice-Chancellor of University of Moratuwa, Prof. Ananda Jayawardana was interviewed by the BBC. While I was listening to his interview I realized that how an intellectual mind was duped to believe an unnecessary issue.

Nevertheless, this ban on veil is seriously violating the provisions of the constitution. Chapter III of the 1978 constitution titled as Fundamental Rights provide various fundamental rights for the citizens. Equality before law, Freedom of expression and Freedom of Religion and conscience are some of the provisions among others are in clear violation by this ban. This senseless decision is massively divisive and will only lead to an environment in which the rights of many will be disproportionately suppressed. These fundamental rights are at stake here and this sets out an extremely dangerous precedent not only for the Muslim community but for members of all faith backgrounds.

Without prior consultation of female Muslim students or of key stakeholders, I am extremely concerned that this will act as yet another barrier to accessing further education. I believe that no student should have to choose between their faith and education. Education is a right which, in all free and fair societies, everyone should have access to.

There were only three Muslim students; a tiny minority out of thousands of students in the University of Moratuwa was wearing the Face Veil. Two of them have been wearing face veil inside the University for well over two years and a first year student had been wearing for the last five months without any issues.  As mentioned in the appeal letter by a victim wrote to the VC, these girls were very cooperative to the security checking in the university especially at the main entrance. Apparently one girl with full face veil had graduated from the same University in 2011.

The VC in his interview to BBC Tamil, outlined following reasons for the ban,

  1. Security threat
  2. Hindrance to inter-culture

The responsibility for a university to provide security for students and staff is of paramount importance, however the banning of niqab for this reason is nothing short of a red herring. When it comes to security threats, there is no way to say that those students pose security threats to the university. Muslim Women had been wearing face veil even when the country was under the most crucial threat by the terrorist. I remember, muslim women were wearing face veil during the time suicide attacks were more frequent in Colombo.  No security threats had arisen at that time. But it is ridiculous to say that this small piece of cloth on a university student’s face has caused a security threat to a University.

Freedom of a citizen cannot be restricted in the name of bogus security threats. If wearing face veil poses any security threats, that can be further discussed and debated with the stake holders and sorted out. Have the Professor or the University administration encountered any security problems so far due to Niqab? What they claim is completely hypothetical. Even if there is any offence committed related to face veil, we have Police to inquire and take legal action against those who committed crimes. We have enough provisions in our Criminal Law to punish people who commit crimes. In contrast, a way of dressing is being criminalized inside a state-run university.  It reminds me a quote of the old Ben Franklin line: “He who values security above liberty deserves neither.”

Another argument put forward by the VC is that the University is a mixed cultured, multi-religious and multi-ethnical. So there must be lot of interactions and cohesion between the University students. I totally agree with his view but what I disagree with him is his view that this face veil is a barrier for interaction among students.

It surprise to see the interpretation of “interaction” in this high tech world. Now people are heavily depended on social media and telecommunication. Even the media that the VC had used to express his position did not show his face but just broadcasted only his voice. On the other hand the most influential media of today are also using the same pattern. When we use the phones we don’t even see each other. It doesn’t mean that those people are undergoing any problem in involving in interaction and cohesion through these high tech devices.

When you talk about Inter- culture in the University, then everyone should be allowed to express and practice their culture and belief freely. Many of our universities have students from many different faiths and backgrounds which adds to the richness of their communities. That is the core of a multi society. Ironically when you ban the face veil you neglect a minority of women. If your purpose of banning the veil is in fact to increase the interaction between students and allow them to enjoy their multicultural values, then it is also invalidated by way of your rejecting these tiny minority women. If you feel that these women are not interactive and backward then allow them to come to the University and learn about the so called modern dress code and interactions as you wish. If these women were to disappear from view completely, then how would we ever know about their culture and values? There is no doubt that in this multicultural hub, the university has acted in a way in which equality and inclusivity have been jeopardised and there is now a need for an immediate reversal of this discriminatory policy.

For those who are shouting out there that Niqab was an Arabian culture and it should not be allowed in Sri Lanka, I could tell them that almost all Sri Lankans are wearing dresses not related to our Sri Lankan culture. It might either be Indian or Western. But no one objects to it as it is strange to our national costumes.

We may have our own whims and fancies but it should not go into violating others rights and freedom. Especially, when it comes to education we should be more careful. Not only we are denying a tiny minority’s right to education but also causing harm to generations to come.

One may wonder as to why these intellectual minds are failed to see these realities and in contrast getting encouraged by the extremist elements. I too am with the same feeling regarding the failure of intellectual minds. It is the University which should teach tolerance to the society, but it is sad to see that these universities are intolerable of just three students due to their choice of dress code.

Give me one good reason why a woman shouldn’t be allowed to cover her face in public if that’s what she wants to do. You don’t object to her covering her other body parts? Do you find it offensive if a woman wears sunglasses? Do you object if a woman wears a medical mask and comes to University? And anyway, what’s it got to do with you?

If the likes of Professors in University of Moratuwa are genuinely concerned about security and intercultural cohesion then perhaps they should begin by asking the veiled Muslim women her opinion for a change instead of doing exactly what they supposedly stand against: forcing her to dress in a certain way or rather in this case, forcing her to undress.

It is ridiculous to suggest that the three women, who are thought to wear the niqab in University of Moratuwa, suddenly constitute a security threat. The niqab ban is unnecessary, and will most likely be counterproductive. No one else should follow the University of Moratuwa example, and University of Moratuwa itself should reverse it.

Finally, we must acknowledge that Sri Lanka still carries people who are very peaceful and tolerant with other ethnicities despite a strong racist campaign out there. Deputy Minister of Higher Education, Human Rights Commissioner of Sri Lanka, FUTA and IUSF have already been shown their solidarity towards these victims. The outrage expressed by students and members of the other organisations are telling of exactly what impact this will have, especially in light of the alarming racism by Budhist Extremist Elements that would see the niqab banned in public places. What do other people choose to wear is nothing to do with me, or with you. You don’t like the niqab? Get over it.

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