The Sri Lankan government has banned face coverings in response to the Easter Sunday suicide bombings at three churches and three hotels that killed over 250 people.
President Maithripala Sirisena announced the emergency law, which is effective immediately, on Monday, according to the BBC.
The law is intended to help authorities identify the attackers responsible for the Easter bombings, according to Reuters. However, some see the regulation as a direct attack on Sri Lanka’s Muslim minority, which makes up nearly 10% of the population in the Buddhist-majority country.
The radical Islamic group, the Islamic State, has claimed responsibility for the bombing, which targeted churches, hotels, and other sites in an apparent attack on Christians celebrating the religious holiday Easter. Officials have warned that the group behind the April 21 suicide bombings was planning more attacks.
Authorities have arrested 150 people in association with the attacks, but are still looking for around 140 other followers of the Islamic State, according to the BBC.
“This was a devastating attack and huge blow for Sri Lanka that is only just recovering from decades of violence,” South Asia Director at the organization Human Rights Watch, Meenakshi Ganguly told Global Citizen via email.
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Sri Lanka’s Muslim community fears a prolonged ban on face coverings could fuel religious tensions that emerged during the armed conflict between the government and the country’s Tamil separatist group, from 1983 to 2009. The conflict initially started over ethnic tension between the country's Sinhalese, the mostly Buddhist group, originally from northern India, who make up the majority of Sri Lanka’s population, and the Tamils, who are mostly Christian and Hindu.
“While the government should take immediate steps to identify and arrest the perpetrators, assist the victims, and prevent further attacks, what it should not do is adopt policies that violate human rights or drive rifts between communities,” Ganguly said.
Although the government didn’t explicitly ban burqas and niqabs –– garments some Muslim women wear, which cover their faces –– Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe issued a statement saying that he requested regulations to ban the burqa.
According to Reuters, Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, expressed concern that Muslim women in Sri Lanka who choose to cover up in the observance of their religion, will not be able to leave home if they can’t wear their face veils. This could stop them from going to school, working, and participating in society indefinitely.
“Knee-jerk responses like this will be seen by many Muslims to be collective punishment for the contemptible actions of a violent group,” Ganguly continued.
People also took to social media to question Sri Lanka’s new law, and how it infringes on women’s rights.
So sad to hear Sri Lanka has banned face covering, this is a step that directly targets women’s rights to religious expression! How many of the terrorists were wearing veils compared with those carrying rucksacks ? No one is calling for a rucksack ban! pic.twitter.com/EBpKxDlBtj— Mairi Ord (@MairiOrd) April 28, 2019
Again, Sri Lanka also has taken an inconsiderate, unacceptable, and unethical step as they ban the use of face veils in the country. This is unjustifiable as its violation of women's right to practice their #religion.— Advocate (@AdvocateRotimi) April 29, 2019
Sri Lanka isn’t the first to mandate a controversial ban on face coverings. In 2018, France became the first country in Western Europe to officially forbid burqas in public citing security concerns.
A week after the Easter bombings, Sunday church services were canceled across Sri Lanka as a precaution. The country also blocked social media platforms following the attack to prevent violence by stopping the spread of hatred and misinformation stoking religious tensions.
Human rights groups hope the Sri Lankan government will consider other alternatives to ensure safety.
“The political leadership should show its commitment to provide security in a rights-respecting manner,” Ganguly urged.