Recently, Sarath Weerasekara, the Sri Lankan Minister of Public Security said “the burqa has a direct impact on national security.” He claims to have signed a proposal and is awaiting the cabinet and the 2/3rd Sinhaleses’ majority parliament’s approval for closing over 1,000 Islamic schools (madrassas) as well as banning the burqa as he states they are viewed as symbols of ‘religious extremism.’ The burqa is a long, loose garment that covers the whole body from head to feet and is often worn by Muslim women in public.
This is not the first time that the burqa has been banned within the country. Shortly after the Easter bombings in Sri Lanka in 2019, which resulted in more than 260 people losing their lives and two local Islamist terrorist groups claiming responsibility for this tragedy, the burqa was temporarily banned. The justification given by the state was that it would hasten the process of identifying the attackers and their networks. Even back then, the UN Human Rights Watch heavily condemned this move and called it a direct violation of one’s religious expression and human rights.
But what is interesting to note is that Sri Lanka’s demographic is such that Muslims comprise less than 9 per cent of the total population, and the Sinhalese consist of 74 per cent of the total, with more than 69 per cent of the Sinhalese populace identifying as Buddhists. In addition to this, the current ruling government is in a Sinhalese Buddhist majority, with two Sinhalese Buddhist brothers, Gotabaya and Mahinda Rajapaksa being the leading representatives of the country, i.e, the President and the Prime minister respectively. With such a clear majority in population numbers as well as political power, why does the majority consider items of clothing such as the burqa a threat, such that it needs to be banned? And how can the burqa play a crucial role for the Muslim minority in the face of the ongoing threat of majority imposition?
One obvious explanation for the burqa to be labelled as a threat is not because of its literal sense, but what it comes to represent. Lori G. Beamarí, an author of a research paper titled ‘Battle of the Symbols’ highlights how religious symbols do not have a meaning of themselves but are seen in the conveyance of religious ‘messages’ at a deeper level. While a burqa is not a religious ‘symbol’ like the Cresent and Star, it still explicitly acts as an indicator of one’s Islam identity and thereby continues to be a marker of it.
Unfortunately, this is not the first time the burqa has been associated with the term ‘religious extremism’. Post 9/11, there is no doubt that there was a growing anti-Islamic climate within the world, and items like the burqa, hijab and even the long beard became ‘political banners for Islam’ and those wearing it were considered ‘terrorists’. Post the Easter bombings in 2019 by the local Islamic groups, this islamophobic narrative was reinforced even within Sri Lanka, which resulted in inaccurate causal links between Islam and religious extremism being drawn.
However, such proposals to ban the burqa as well as madrassas, legitimise Islamophobia within the state and hinder the process for Islam to recover from this image of violence that has been constructed around it.
Furthermore, another explanation surrounding this ban can be found in Arjun Appadurai’s book titled ‘Fear of Small numbers’. He introduced the concept of ‘predatory identities’ that are defined as “identities whose social construction and mobilisation requires the extinction of the other”. He highlights that there is an underlying belief that a nation should consist of a single ethnic identity, that establishes ideal nationhood and absolute ethnic purity, and when majorities that act as predatory identities are unable to achieve this, he terms this as the ‘anxiety of incompleteness’. He delves further on this idea by expanding on how this incompleteness occurs due to the presence of other minorities that become a symbol of hindrance in establishing this fantasy of national purity and wholeness. While the author mentions how in pursuit of this fantasy, majorities may not necessarily take the road of extinguishing minorities altogether, within Sri Lanka we can firmly state that the three major minorities — Christians, Tamils and Muslims — have been at the brunt of violence and conflict throughout history. Roshini Wickremesinhe, a lawyer and consultant engaged in religious freedom and human rights advocacy and research, compiled a report on religious intolerance within Sri Lanka. She highlights how each of these minorities has been at the receiving end of some form of violence, either hate speech, discrimination and facing demands to discontinue places of worship to serve, often directed by the majority Sinhalese Buddhist groups like Sinha Le, who are in contradiction to with the equality and condemning of hierarchies that Buddhism stands for. Therefore, the banning of the ‘burqa’ can be seen as a means of removing the constant visual reminder and signifier that instigates the anxiety of the incomplete for the majority, and how Muslims stand in their way of resolving it. By banning the ‘burqa’ the visual representation of a female Muslim is no longer explicit to the eye, thereby no longer creating a distinction between a female Sri Lankan, and a female Sri Lankan Muslim.
While the burqa continues to be a source of ‘threat’ for the majority, how can the minority use this to their advantage? It cannot be denied that it explicitly puts female Muslims in danger of violence and discrimination since it makes their religious identity visually accessible to a majority that feels threatened by it. However, post 9/11, various female American Muslims who were discriminated against for wearing the burqa and were seen as a ‘threat,’ used it as a symbol of protest to empower their Muslim identities. Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad in her paper titled ‘The Post- 9/11 “Hijab” as an Icon’ emphasises how items like the hijab, niqab and burqa became symbols of protest against the attack on their religious identity. Wearing a burqa characterised empowerment and the pride one felt to be associated with Islam and slogans like ‘Islam is beautiful, Deal with it!’ became popular. However, it can be questioned whether the Sri Lankan female Muslim community will be effectively able to use this opportunity to come together to defy the Islamophobic narrative, especially when their identities are increasingly coming under scrutiny. While symbols like the burqa become threatening to a majority, they can also evolve into becoming threatening to a minority for embracing them since they explicitly state their identity as the ‘other’ in times of conflict.
Harshita Bedi is a student at Ashoka University pursuing her Psychology major. In her free time, you would find Harshita catching up on her sleep.