“Identification” is not the issue here — for, if the wearing of the niqab causes a crisis in identification, it is the non-niqab wearer’s problem, then: if at all, a “problem” that can be solved creatively and amicably without putting one’s iron heel on another’s culture.
The Moratuwa University ban on niqabs (female headwear worn by certain Muslim communities) is unacceptable and nothing short of condemnation. The Vice Chancellor of that university was recently quoted by theindependent.lk as stating that “security reasons” and the need for “easy identification” entails such a prohibition on Muslim women. Earlier two students had appealed to relevant authorities of the University to be allowed to wear niqabs on campus premises, but have been turned down.
The University of Moratuwa may be the chart topper in University rankings where Sri Lankan universities are concerned. But, this measure of arrogance and chauvinism does not by any means help the human rights mess to which our country is being pushed by headless bureaucrats and haughty authorities. Coming from a university head, this statement is most disturbing and — in context — what Moratuwa has set is an extremely dangerous precedent which — in the worst case scenario — may lead the country to strife and bloodshed. The Vice Chancellor and the other relevant authorial duds of Moratuwa, therefore, are wittingly feeding an unnecessary fire of ethnic hatred.
The reasons given for the banning of the niqab are unacceptable in a civilized society (and I am assuming Moratuwa University is civilized when I make this claim). If one deems “security” is at threat in a case of a niqab-wearer, there are other creative ways in which that “threat” can be negotiated with. The first and easiest way. of course, is to put a hold on one’s own fear psychosis and racial prejudice. I am sure the Moratuwa academics are not babies and nor are we — what is being splashed in our face here is the negritude attitude that a “face covering Muslim is a potential terrorist”. It is the Euro-American propound which has brought much discomfort and dismay to the global Muslim community in the post 9/11 aftermath which, in the days of fanatical thugs such as the Bodhu Bala Sena, has gained ground in Sri Lanka.
The University Registrar — who doesn’t register as being very bright — had made a statement to the Ceylon Today on 08th December stating that lecturers found it difficult to conduct classes when there were “covered” students in the classroom. This Registrar, Vindya Jayasena, is both illogical and ignorant in making such a statement which also holds to problematization the mindset of people who warm the higher seats in the education hierarchy. For this Registrar, Moratuwa University is where the world begins and where it ends: the alpha and the omega. There are 12 other universities in Sri Lanka and thousands of global institutes of the highest educational and community standards that function without any hindrance to the learner’s learner-capacity whether being dressed in niqab or a three-point hat.
Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri — the President of the Federation of University Teachers’ Associations and himself a lecturer at Colombo University — had dismissed the validity of the Moratuwa argument as baseless. According to Dewasiri, as quoted in the same newspaper, a lecturer should be able to deliver regardless of “eye contact” with the student. Dewasiri, however, states that niqabs should not be worn at examinations as identification is important at the exam. I disagree with Dewasiri as he is too defensive in his statement and as his statement doesn’t necessarily address the issue at hand. If so-called “identification” is crucial at an exam, it is equally crucial at a lecture, too. But, “identification” is not the issue here — for, if the wearing of the niqab causes a crisis in identification, it is the non-niqab wearer’s problem, then: if at all, a “problem” that can be solved creatively and amicably without putting one’s iron heel on another’s culture. How does one conduct exams in the thickly Muslim inhabited Eastern and South Eastern Universities? The issue at hand is one to do with ethnic hatred and that has to be the point of Dewasiri’s assault.
What does the FUTA propose as a “practical” measure to alleviate this unacceptable measure? What are the views of FUTA’s Moratuwa sister branch regarding the same? More than opinion — becasue opinions can be had — what does the Moratuwa Lecturers and Student Unions (which is majoritarian Sinhala) plan to do about this venomous indict? When students rally around for the preservation of Higher Education in Sri Lanka — including struggles engineered by the FUTA — their partnership was not based on the niqab or on religious creed. If this breach of the rights of the Muslim community is to be tolerated (or to be “forgotten” after a ceremonial press conference) the Students’ Unions as well as the FUTA will be holding themselves to public trial.
As reported by the Ceylon Today what the Deputy Minister of Higher Education, Nandimithra Ekanayake, has to say of the issue is as follows: “Legally, there is nothing against [the niqab], so I cannot say what the Moratuwa University authority’s reasons for banning it. There is definitely nothing against Muslim students wearing the face-cover as you know – even school students are allowed to wear it; and they’re allowed to do so even when they come to university” (italics mine).
Of course, Minister Nandimitra’s dwarfish gesture here does not help the Moratuwa issue. He uses the constitution of the country for a handwash and the “mystery” of the Moratuwa officials’ will to ban the niqab as a towel. He simply sidesteps from having to make a strong statement. However, the Higher Education Ministry’s respect for the “university autonomy” is applaudable, though they show it sparingly. Yet, Minister Nandimithra has to be told that whatever the law may dictate the de facto ground-level condition is far from what his ministerial imagination tells him.
In my experience, there are so-called National Schools that do not tolerate its Muslim students wearing niqabs or even loose scarves within school. In the Kandy District there are several well reputed and highly popular schools where the Muslim student has to “unveil” herself upon entrance to the school premises. These are not Private schools, but National Schools situated in mixed-ethnic neighbourhoods. The schools have a majoritarian Sinhala density and is run in a de facto Sinhala Buddhist spirit, though the schools have three mediums of instruction and call their students from a multi-ethnic background. Both schools entertain a high number of Muslim students at the Advanced Level. What matters, therefore, is not what the constitution allows, but what is in operation down at the grassroots.
Where Moratuwa is concerned, the niqab — or any other garb of cultural value — has to be allowed and negotiated with. The authority’s problem is “visibility”. Niqab or otherwise, I doubt these authorities will see any better, anyway. For, moral blindness requires a special kind of “spectacle”.