The decision, which awaits a final nod from the parliament, raises concern about the rights of the Muslim minority in the country.
Sri Lanka’s government has approved a proposal to ban face veils in public places, a move that critics say overwhelmingly targets the Muslim minority in the island state.
The decision hasn’t been implemented yet and needs a final nod from the parliament, where President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Buddhist nationalist Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) party has a majority.
Minister of Public Security Sarath Weerasekara first announced the government's intention to ban face veils in March, calling burqas “a sign of religious extremism” with a “direct impact on national security.”
Covering one’s head with a scarf is common praticse among Muslim women in several countries but in some cultures burqas are also common, a garment that covers the face and body, when they go out.
A temporary ban on such veils was introduced after the 2019 Easter attacks in which miltiants belonging to an extremist Muslim group targeted churches and hotels in suicide attacks that left more than 250 people dead.
But Sri Lanka’s Muslim community, which makes up 10 percent of the 22 million population, has complained of facing discmrimination at the hands of the Sinhalese Buddhist majority.
Extremist Buddhists, some of whom are linked to Gotabaya’s party, have attacked Muslim homes and mosques in last few years.
Gotabaya, along with his elder brother Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is the prime minister, is under international pressure to investigate military officers who committed human rights violations during the 40-year long war with ethnic Tamils, which ended in 2009.
The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) recently passed a resolution to collect evidence, which can be used to prosecute people behind wartime atrocities.
Colombo was widely criticised for stopping the burials of the Covid-19 patients and forcing cremations instead. The decision was seen as targeting Muslims who bury their dead.
The policy was reversed after Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan made a personal appeal to his counterpart, Mahinda Rajapaksa, during his visit to Sri Lanka in February.
Debate around the ban on burqa comes at a time when people are required to wear masks as the Sri Lanka battles a likely third wave of the coronavirus pandemic, which has overwhelmed hospitals in neighbouring India.
Experts say forcing women to remove face coverings will be seen by Muslims as an attack on their right to practice religion.
“Prohibitions on the veil represent an attack by the state on Islamic culture and values, and they naturally breed resentment among stigmatised and marginalised Muslim groups,” wrote Nilay Saiya, a a senior fellow with the Religious Freedom Institute, in The Diplomat.
“The growing discrimination against Muslims by the state and demonisation of Muslims by Buddhist nationalists in society over the last few years are contributing to their radicalisation. A ban on burqas will only exacerbate this reality.”
Saiya is co-author of a study that investigated relationship between burqa ban and terrorism in Europe where Switzerland became the latest country to prohibit the face veil last month.
“Jarringly, we find that countries with veil restrictions experience almost 15 times more cases of Islamist terrorist attacks and 17 times more terrorism-related fatalities than countries not having these bans.”
A rise in violent attacks followed restrictions on veil rather than the other way around, they found.
Diplomats have also voiced concern with Saad Khattak, Pakistan’s ambassador to Sri Lanka, saying last month that a ban will reinforce the perception that the fundamental rights of a minority are being compromised.