By Amra Ismail
Muslim women who have been asked to remove their head scarves and Abayas (robe-like overgarment) by government officials met with Human Rights Commission (HRC) Chairperson Deepika Udagama and Commissioner Ambika Satkunanathan yesterday.
The women said the harassment stemmed from a lack of understanding about the differences between the Niqab, Burqa, Abaya and Hijab (head covering). But they also said most of the government officials were aware of the differences and the interpretation of regulations, but used the present situation to manifest their prejudices. “The government staff is not frightened of any disciplinary consequence when harassing us,” they said.
Under the recent emergency regulations, no person can wear in any public place a garment concealing the full face. Full face has been defined to include the “whole face of a person including the ears.” These regulations ban the covering of the face with a Niqab or Burqa. However, it does not ban the Hijab or the Abaya.
Women complained of the humiliating treatment they had to encounter before certain Divisional Secretariats (DS). One DS official had allegedly said that if Abaya wearing women did not come in saree to work, he would come with his briefs. At another DS office, prior to the imposition of the Emergency Regulation concerned, a woman was asked to remove the Abaya and Hijab before entering the office. She was greatly humiliated because she had been wearing a worn off dress underneath. Students in certain schools have been asked to remove the trousers and V-shawls worn over the uniform. Teachers and parents have been asked to remove their Abayas.
The HRC has issued guidelines including pictorials to the Secretary of the Education Ministry with the hope that directives will be issued to schools explaining that the Abaya and head scarf are not banned, and that security measures implemented should not target or harass a particular community.
Women complained of similar harassment in hospitals and even on the street. “Muslim women are being policed by everyone on the street. Women do not go out because they fear they will be forced to remove their head scarves and Abayas. Muslim women have just started reaching greater heights. But now they are being pushed into kitchens,” the women said.
“Some women possess only one Abaya which is black and purchasing another of a different colour is difficult owing to financial constraints,” one woman said.