By Nisha Susan
Back in 2009, then French President Nicolas Sarkozy said hijabs were a sign of women’s debasement and began the process of banning them. In the heat of that particular episode of the global culture war, I interviewed an assortment of hijab-wearing women from across India. A number of young women I spoke to despised the hijab and couldn’t wait for a day when they could stop wearing it. But several other women I spoke to were the first in their generation to wear hijabs. Whichever group they belonged to, every single woman I spoke to ascribed different meanings for the hijab — from modesty to privacy to obedience to the Quran to a political identity formed after the Gujarat riots all the way to an electric enjoyment of the mystery of being the girl with the beautiful eyes. Some of them covered their faces, some covered their hair and some wore them when far from home and some only in the last half km as they approached home. One of them told me, “Sometimes even close friends ask about ‘pressure’. I tell them: think of how joyfully you ask your mother to put a teeka on your forehead. You’ve to believe that I have a mind.”
This week the Sri Lankan government banned ‘face coverings’ as a response to the killing of 250 people in coordinated attacks on Easter Sunday. According to the government’s statement, ‘the ban is to ensure national security … No one should obscure their faces to make identification difficult.’ Hijabs/niqabs are not named but it’s clear that is what is meant since the 7 suicide bombers are now linked to a local militant Islamist group with possible foreign ties.
The hijab means different things everywhere. Two weeks ago an Iranian woman who protested the hijab by unveiling herself in public has been sentenced to a year in jail. Muslim teenagers in New Zealand have been quoted saying they felt happiness in seeing Sudanese political activist Alaa Salah standing on a car in her headscarf, chanting and looking ready to rule the world. In Sri Lanka that has seen decades of war, reportedly Muslim women are already long accustomed to removing their niqabs at security checkpoints.
And now in the week since Easter, the meaning of the hijab is changing again in Sri Lanka where ten percent of the population are Muslims. The Sri Lanka Muslim council have called the new hijab ruling “the stupidest thing to do.” Hilmy Ahmed, vice-president of the Sri Lanka Muslim Council is quoted as saying, “Three days ago we [the Muslim community] took a voluntary decision regarding this. The All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulema told all Muslim women not to wear face veils for security reasons. If they wanted to wear a veil, then they were told not to come out.” Muslim leaders have been at pains to detail how they had alerted the authorities to the dangers posed by the organisation behind the bombings, National Towheeth Jama’ath and its leader Zaharan Hashim several times, only in vain.
What are we missing in this picture? What Sri Lankan Muslim women feel about this situation. As Tehani Ariyaratne, a women’s rights activist told Al Jazeera, “Any ban on the niqab without consultation with those who would be directly affected by it, is nothing but a reactionary response by the state, designed to distract from its woeful lack of accountability for the events that have taken place over the last week. Muslim women and Muslim women’s rights groups and activists have not been consulted in the process of putting this ban in place.” Sri Lankan gender researcher Megara Tegal draws attention to the organisation that was actually consulted: “The All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (ACJU), one of many Muslim organisations in Sri Lanka, has no women in its leadership. In the past, the ACJU had released a fatwa declaring that Muslim women should conceal their faces in public. The ACJU has also stood against Muslim women who have demanded reforms in Muslim personal law.”
This is the kind of structural oppression that Egyptian writer and activist Mona Eltahawy has protested for decades. In the past she has supported hijab bans such as the one in France. But more recently she has condemned the racist agenda of such bans and said in an interview, “I wish us Muslim women didn’t have to constantly use our body to prove that we’re Muslim. I wish this wasn’t the only way to show our opposition to Islamophobia or xenophobia. The body of Muslim women is like a blackboard where everyone leaves their message. But what happens to the messages we want to write? I don’t want my body to equate a hijab.”
Even without the chin-tipping of the Sri Lankan government, the hijab wearing woman in Sri Lanka is likely to become the focus of the Islamophobia in her village and in the gaze of the world. What is the meaning of the hijab in Sri Lanka in 2019? To quote Eltahawy, “unless you’re a Muslim woman, shut the f**k up and listen to Muslim women.’ The Sri Lankan government is leaving its own message on the body of Muslim women by linking the hijab to national security.
What does the hijab say about national security? It would make more sense to ban backpacks, the kind the bombers used. It was the backpack that raised the suspicion of Ramesh Raju who stopped the bomber from entering the Zion church in Batticaloa, saved many lives and lost his own.