Colombo, February 14 (SAM): Fathima Fahmida Rameez, a teacher in the State-run Sri Shanmuga Hindu Ladies College in the Eastern Sri Lankan district of Trincomalee, has not been allowed to resume work wearing the Abaya (a loose garment covering the body except the face), though the Education Department had instructed the school to allow her.
Fahmida has been having trouble over this issue since 2018, when she was forced out by a mob comprising the Principal, its Hindu students and their parents. According to a report in The Morning Fahmida, along with three other Abaya- clad teachers, filed a complaint with the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) on May 21, 2018, stating that they had been prohibited from wearing the Abaya by the school’s management committee headed by the Principal. On February 2, 2019, the HRCSL recommended that the complainants be allowed to wear the dress of their choice (Abaya), resume their duties without hindrance or harassment.
But the school did not implement the HRCSL’s recommendation. While the other complainants accepted transfers from the school. Fahmida did not do so and decided to file a writ application at the Court of Appeal in 2021 through attorney Swastika Arulingam. The case was called up for support in November 2021. The respondents – the Education Ministry, the Trincomalee Zonal Education Director, and the college principal – proposed a negotiated settlement. In the middle of the talks, On February 2, Fahmida was asked to report to duty on by the Education Department. But when she went to the school to do so, ugly incidents reminiscent of what happened in 2018 occurred. There was a scuffle for which Fahmida was blamed unjustly.
Abaya a Widespread Issue
Fahmida’a case is to come up for hearing again in March. In the meanwhile, a movement to secure her justice is gathering ground under the leadership of human rights workers Shreen Saroor, Swastika Arulingam and Ambika Satkunananthan. Participants in a press conference on February 7 revealed that the Sri Shanmuga Hindu Ladies College is not the only government institution in which the Abaya is objected to. A number of Muslim women from Puttalam District in the North Western Province reported difficulties they faced when wearing the Abaya at work or even in availing of public services.
One of them told The Morning: “I have worked in the public service for many years. However, after the Easter Sunday attacks, I noticed a shift in the attitude of my co-workers towards my wearing the Abaya. There were initially only three Muslim girls who worked in the office with me, but when four new novices joined – all of whom wearing the said covering – there was suddenly a lot of attention on us. We were constantly demonized by our supervisor. Co-workers who shared lunch packets with us in previous years, refused to even sit with us. We were constantly yelled at.”
“Protests occurred at our workplace. We were punished even for the smallest mistake. We used to cry at work every day but we could not stop coming to work either as some of us needed jobs due to our economic situation.”
Another participant raised concerns about accessing medical services, as nurses often discriminated against Muslim women wearing the shawl or hijab.
While objections to the Abaya are new, there had been objections to the Hijab, especially the full face covering Hijab, since 2014. The anti-Hijab movement was led by the radical Buddhist monk, Ven. Gnanasara Thero, General Secretary of the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) which had the backing of the Sri Lankan State. Ven.Gnanasara touted the theory that the face covering was not only against Sri Lankan culture but was also a national security risk in the age of Islamic terrorism.
Gnanasara Thero added another ingredient to his with a campaign against “Halal” certification of foods, saying that the All Ceylon Jamiyath Ulema, the top Muslim organization issuing the certificate, was extorting money from all Sri Lankan food merchants and importers using Islam.
Muslims’ Own Solution
Eventually, the issue of the head and body covering Hijab and Abaya was addressed by the Muslims themselves. Leading Muslim organizations like the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka (MCSL) realized that the black robed and black hooded Muslim women were creating fears in the minds of other Sri Lankans. They advocated wearing of colorful Abayas and Chadors. Muslim women designed colorful Abayas and scarfs. A Muslim organization even had a scheme to give a colorful Abaya free in exchange of a black Abaya.
“There has been a positive response to our project to give Abayas of different colours in exchange for black abayas. Within a short time, 1200 Abayas had been exchanged. In another week, we hope to cross 2,000,” said Hilmy Ahamed, Vice President of the MCSL. However, this was only a passing phase. Black is back in full force.
Ban on Face Covering
After the April 2019 serial suicide bombings in Colombo and three other places by a bunch of Islamic zealots in which 260 people died, the government clamped a ban on full-face covering as a security measure. National Security Minister Adm.Sarath Weerasekara called burqas a “sign of religious extremism” and said a ban would improve national security. He also announced a ban on 1000 Madrasas or Islamic religious schools.
Shreen Saroor, cofounder of the Colombo-based Women’s Action Network, agreed, told Arab News: “The ban violates Muslim women’s freedom of religion and expression.” She questioned the government’s timing for the ban of the face and body veil “when everyone is wearing face masks to protect themselves from the corona virus.”
“In the last few months, there has been an increase of Islamophobic rhetoric, and this ban is part of that. The Muslim community has been discussing various reforms, but getting rid of what has been practiced for such a long time overnight shows how this state regards its minorities and the pluralistic nature of our constitution,” Saroor said.
Hilmy Ahamed Vic President of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka added that if the government were “genuinely concerned about national security, they would ban backpacks as well, since suicide bombers often carry bombs in their backpacks.”
Oncidentally none of the suicide bombers was in a burqa!
N.M. Ameen, president of the Sri Lanka Muslim Council and editor of popular Islamic weekly, Navamani, told Arab News: “The burqa ban will harm the island’s tourism industry because Arab women are more likely to reject Sri Lanka as a tourist destination.
“Arab tourists are heavy spenders, and they like the island very much. This move can divert them to neighboring countries,” Ameen added. In the years preceding the COVID-19 pandemic, 71,636 tourists from the Gulf and the Middle East — with 50 percent from Saudi Arabia — had visited the island nation, A. M. Jaufer, president of the Chamber of Tourism and Industry in Sri Lanka, added.
Be that as it may, the burqa or, the face cover really, was temporary. But it remains to be seen if the Abaya issue in the Trincomalee school will be resolved after the Court of Appeal gives its decision in March.
If not checked it could spread because there are a few Hindu fundamentalist organizations, which are trying to come up among the Sri Lankan Tamils drawing inspiration from the Rashtriya Swayam Sewak Sangh in India. The danger is real now because the on-going anti-Hijab or anti-Abaya movement in Karnataka is being seen in both the mainstream and social media in Sri Lanka.