Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena has ordered a ban on face coverings in public as one of a number of emergency measures imposed following the Easter Sunday bombings that killed more than 250 people and injured hundreds. The ban, which took effect April 29, prohibits any face covering “that may hinder one’s identify [from being] ascertained,” and cites such coverings as a potential security threat.
In ordering the ban, Sirisena joins a growing number of countries which, in the name of national security, target Muslim women who wear the veil. Under international human rights law, governments may restrict rights to freedom of expression or religion, including wearing of religious attire or display of religious symbols, but only when such restrictions are proportionate and on reasonable grounds.
A government’s impulse to take dramatic security measures is understandable in the wake of mass violence, but the face ban disproportionately restricts the rights of women who wear the burqa or niqab, a veil leaving only the eyes visible. For Muslim women who feel uncomfortable being uncovered in public, a ban can cut off access to public transit, education, employment, and social services, isolating them and barring them from opportunities to be part of society and benefit from critical services.
The ban also adds to stigma against Muslims, who have already reported feeling threatened in Sri Lanka, a majority-Buddhist country, after the Islamic State (ISIS) claimed responsibility for the attacks and authorities identified the perpetrators as members of a domestic Muslim militant group. Angry crowds have threatened and assaulted mostly Muslim refugees and asylum seekers, many of whom have been evicted from their homes.
No clear links have emerged between face coverings, including face veils, and the attacks. Authorities could implement less restrictive security measures such as allowing covered women to unveil in private spaces for checks by female security officers. Just as women should not be forced to wear the niqab, burqa or other religious dress, nor should they be punished for choosing to do so. Laws that do either are discriminatory.
Rather than targeting Muslim women who wear the veil, Sri Lanka’s government should focus on investigating those responsible for the bombings and bringing them to justice.