On Saturday, March 13th, Sarath Weerasekara, Sri Lanka’s minister of public security, announced that he had signed a proposal with the intent of banning the use of burqas and shutting down over 1,000 madrasas, Islamic schools, within the country. Weerasekara cited national security concerns as motivation for the move, and now seeks Cabinet and Parliament approval to implement the permanent ban.
Security Minister Weerasekara, in explaining the ban, stated that the burqa, which is a long garment that covers the body and face of an individual usually worn by Islamic women, “is a sign of religious extremism that came about recently” and that, “in our early days, we had a lot of Muslim friends, but Muslim women and girls never wore the burqa.”
This is not the first time that Sri Lanka, which consists of a majority Buddhist population, has attempted to ban the burqa. Back in 2019, the country, after experiencing a series of terror attacks that turned deadly and killed over 200, implemented a temporary ban on burqas.
Weerasekara also announced the government’s plan to close over 1,000 madrasas, calling out these Muslim schools for not aligning with the nation’s educational policy and stating that “nobody can open a school and teach whatever you want to the children.”
The announcement has been met with criticism from some Sri Lankans themselves, some scared that the ban will only increase polarization within the country and restrict the Muslim minority. The vice-president of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka, whose name is Hilmy Ahamed, called the ban “a racist agenda.” Ahamed further remarked that “wearing a burqa should be considered a right of a woman to choose.” Tensions between the Muslim minority and Sri Lanka’s government are notably high after the government passed now lifted regulations one year ago requiring the cremation of COVID-19 victims. Cremation is a practice strictly forbidden in Islam.
A similar situation recently arose in Switzerland when Swiss voters narrowly approved a ban on face coverings, including burqas and niqabs, in public spaces, a move heavily criticized by Muslim advocacy groups and other international entities. Journalist Jamila Husain says that a lack of understanding of what a burqa, along with a hijab and niqab, is “could lead to discrimination or targeting of Muslim women.”
If the document signed by Weerasekara is approved by Parliament and the Cabinet, the proposal will become law.