Sri Lanka Burqa ban faces criticism from allies

Sri Lanka’s government is in “no rush” to implement a proposed ban on the wearing of burqas and the closure of over 1,000 Islamic schools, Cabinet Spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella said on Tuesday, adding that it was a serious decision that required “consensus and consultations.”

“It will be implemented with a consensus and consultations with Muslim organizations and leaders. We won’t rush through the proposal, since it is a serious issue,” Rambukwella said.

His remarks came a day after Pakistan’s envoy to Colombo Saad Khattak criticized the island nation’s move to ban the burqa — an outer garment worn by some Muslim women to cover the body and face — saying it was a “divisive” step impacting Muslims in Sri Lanka and across the globe.

Khattak tweeted on Monday that the ban would constitute an “injury to the feelings of ordinary Sri Lankan Muslims and Muslims across the globe,” adding that it would exacerbate economic difficulties and fuel concerns over the state of “fundamental human rights of minorities in the country.”

Khattak’s statement follows Sri Lanka’s Minister of Public Security Sarath Weerasekara signing a paper over the weekend seeking the Cabinet’s approval to ban the burqa, calling it “a sign of religious extremism” with a “direct impact on national security.”

“The burqa has a direct impact on national security. It is a sign of religious extremism … Such actions will help maintain security … We will definitely ban it,” Weerasekara said during a press conference on Saturday.

A temporary ban on the burqa was imposed three years ago after the Easter Sunday bomb attacks, which killed 269 people and injured more than 500 in separate locations of Sri Lanka on April 21, 2019.

The island nation also plans to ban more than 1,000 Islamic seminaries, or madrasas, out of the nearly 2,300 institutions across the island, with Weerasekara saying they were either “not registered with the authorities” or failed to follow the national education policy.

If implemented, the proposed ban could be the latest move impacting Sri Lanka’s minority Muslims, who make up nearly 10 percent of its total population of 22 million, where Buddhists account for 70 percent of the census.

Ahmed Shaheed, a Maldivian diplomat currently serving as the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, said a ban was incompatible with international laws that protect religious belief and freedom of expression.

Several Muslim-majority countries, including Pakistan and Bangladesh, are among the 47 nations that will vote on Sri Lanka’s human rights record at a United Nations session in Geneva next week.