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Islamophobia in Sri Lanka: Muslim women pushed to the margins

Rezana Bashir, a government worker has a harrowing tale. A few days after the Easter Sunday attacks, she and a group of friends, all Muslim women, boarded a train from Colombo to their hometown Kurunegala.

Rezana Bashir a government worker was forced to take off her headscarf after a train crew refused to leave the station unless and her co-religionists did so/RepublicNext.com

“But the Conductor and the staff said that the train will not go unless we take our headscarves off,” Bashir, who chairs a Muslim Women’s group called MASHA told RepublicNext in an interview. “So we had no choice, we took off our scarves and travelled home,” she says.

She was one of many Muslim women who became victims of the Islamophobia that swept the country after Muslim extremists launched suicide bomb attacks on three churches and three five-star hotels this Easter (2019). The strikes killed 259 people at six locations.

Stories flowed in from across the country as Muslim women were denied entry to various places including schools, supermarkets and even hospitals because they were wearing headscarves or were veiled.

Sumika Perera, a Women’s activist said schoolchildren were also affected/RepublicNext.com

Women’s activist Sumika Perera said that soon after the attacks some schoolgirls who were appearing for a competitive public examination in Kurunegala were not allowed into the exam hall with their headscarves. “Imagine how those children felt, and how traumatized they would have been,” she says.

In Kandy, when a Muslim woman wearing a Niqab went for treatment to the General Hospital there was widespread panic, and families tried to evacuate patients.

Parents at a private Catholic Girls’ school in Kandy stopped seven teachers who habitually wore headscarves (Hijab) from entering the premises. This resulted in a complaint to the Human Rights Commission by non-Muslim teachers against the parents. 

In Puwakpitiya a Tamil Language school banned 12 teachers from entering the parents because they were Muslims wearing the Hijab.

The government imposed bans on the Burka and the Niqab, both modes of Islamic dress that covers the face. The country’s highest council of Islamic clergy urged their flock to comply.

“After the Easter bombings Muslim women became marginalized in our society,” says Dr Sepali Kottegoda Program Manager at the Colombo-based Women and Media Collective. The Islamophobia “makes us ask ourselves whether we are a truly multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious society,” she adds

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Dr Sepali Kottegoda Program Manager Women and Media Collective questions whether Sri Lanka is a genuinely multi-cultural society/RepublicNext.com

“In a public place where there are many women walking around, we do not know what religion or ethnicity they are unless they are wearing a scarf, a pottu ( a black or coloured mark, Hindu women wear on their foreheads)  or some other sign to indicate their ethnicity,” she says. She also points out that not all Muslim women cover their heads.

Bashir says as Muslim women “we felt safe with the Police and the Security Forces, they protected us. But we were unsafe from ordinary civilians, who wanted our bags searched and our headscarves removed,” she said

Women’s rights activists point out that in every case where there is violence or an incident such as this “it is the women that society focuses on. During the ethnic war, Tamil women were fearful of wearing the Pottu,” points out Kottegoda.

Silmia Shahabdeen, a grassroots social worker in Pallekelle in the Kandy district says “people look at us as if we are terrorists after this incident.”

Silmia Shahabdeen is a grassroots worker who is encountering issues as a Muslim, but she is determined to stay the course/RepublicNext

Shahabdeen who works in an ethnically mixed area was made to feel unwelcome at institutions that she works very closely with, such as the village Buddhist Temple which she regards as her own home. “It was the women devotees who did not want me to come to the temple,” she told RepublicNext.

But this has not deterred her.  “I had a choice to make, whether I would stop my work helping people, or whether I should stay and fight this situation and continue my work. I have chosen to stay,” she said.

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