1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Sri Lanka: Bans on burqas and Islamic schools spark fear

Tanika Godbole New Delhi
March 26, 2021

Sri Lanka has proposed a series of policies that rights activists say target the country's Muslim minorities and further marginalizes them. In its latest move, the island nation is looking to ban 1,000 madrasas.

A burqa clad Sri Lankan Muslim woman walks in a street of Colombo, Sri Lanka
The Sri Lankan government says it will soon outlaw the burqa, a loose garment which is worn by some Muslim womenImage: Eranga Jayawardena/AP/picture alliance

Amena (name changed), a 27-year-old homemaker from Sri Lanka, felt dismayed when she heard about the government's proposal to ban the wearing of the burqa and other facial coverings.

"Honestly, I am afraid these days. Things are becoming increasingly difficult for us [Muslims] in the country now," she told DW.

Sri Lanka had temporarily banned the burqa following the deadly 2019 Easter bombings on "national security" grounds.

The state now mulls a permanent burqa ban, which will then be implemented in consultation with Muslim organizations and leaders, Cabinet spokesperson Keheliya Rambukwella told reporters. He added that the government "won't rush through the proposal" since it's a "serious issue."

But Amena and her family are not reassured. They are planning to leave Sri Lanka.

"My husband is looking for job opportunities abroad. Things are tolerable at the moment, but we do not want to wait till they get worse," she said.

Most recently, the island nation also announced a proposal to ban 1,000 madrasas (Islamic schools) across the country.

International reactions

Several Islamic nations, as well as allies of Sri Lanka, have slammed Colombo's proposed permanent burqa ban.

Pakistani ambassador to Colombo Saad Khattak tweeted that the move "will only serve as injury to the feelings of ordinary Sri Lankan Muslims and Muslims across the globe."

Ban on cremation

Unfair targeting of minorities via discriminatory policies are nothing new in Sri Lanka, critics say.

Rights activists argue a ban on face veils and madrasas would further marginalize and stigmatize the country's Muslim minority community.

In March 2020, the government implemented a policy on forced cremation of people who died of COVID-19, citing that burials could contaminate ground water.

The cremation of bodies is forbidden in Islam.

The policy was introduced despite the World Health Organization and Sri Lankan doctors' groups having deemed burials as safe.

Widespread criticism and fury prompted Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapksa to declare an end to forced cremation in February 2021.

But on February 11, the day after Rajapaksa's announcement supposedly ending the ban, 40-year-old social activist Mohamed Kamaldeen Mohamed Sameem was cremated in the western town of Anamaduwa.

Friends say authorities initially claimed the activist committed suicide, but later changed the cause of death to COVID-19 and quickly cremated the body, Human Rights Watch reported.

Crackdown on activists and religious texts

In another controversial move, the Ministry of Defense began the mandatory scrutiny of Islamic religious texts in June 2020.

"These policies violate Muslims' freedom of religion and belief, freedom from discrimination, freedom of expression and their freedom to manifest religion or belief in worship," Rehab Mahamoor, from Amnesty International's South Asia branch, told DW.

Mahamoor also expressed concerns over the arbitrary arrests of Muslim activists in the country, as well as delays or denials in providing bail.

"There is a worrying trend of Muslims who have criticized the government being arrested. The cases of activists Ramzy Razeek, Hejaaz Hizbullah, and Ahnaf Jazeem are especially worrying as these cases contravene due process," he said.

UN calls for investigation

Earlier this week, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) passed a resolution to collect information and evidence of atrocities committed during Sri Lanka's 37-year-long civil war, which ended in 2009 and left thousands of civilians dead.

The resolution, proposed by the UK, Germany, Canada and other countries, would give UN Human Rights chief Michelle Bachelet and her team more power to investigate Sri Lanka with a view to future prosecutions.

The resolution also expressed particular concerns that Sri Lanka's COVID-19 response had "exacerbated the prevailing marginalization of and discrimination against the Muslim community."

The vote was 22 countries in favor, with 11 against, including China and Pakistan, and 14 abstentions, including India.

The UN provided a budget of $2.8 million (€2.4 million) to hire investigators to work on the collection of evidence and then "develop possible strategies for future accountability processes, advocate for victims, and support judicial proceedings" in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka strongly condemned the resolution, with the country's UN envoy C.A. Chandraprema slamming the decision as "unhelpful and divisive" as it was not passed unopposed and strongly objected to by its allies.

Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunewardena said the resolution lacked authority as the countries that had voted in favor were outnumbered by those that had voted against it or had abstained. "The resolution was brought by countries supported by Western powers that want to dominate the Global South," he said.