COLOMBO: Symptomatic of the sea change in the atmosphere in Sri Lanka following the overthrow of the sectarian government of Mahinda Rajapaksa, young Lankan Muslim women publicly observed World Hijab Day on January 31 without any fear of being targeted by government-backed Buddhist extremist outfits like the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS).
“Lankan Muslims are breathing a sigh of relief. They want to feel free,” said Hilmy Ahamad of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka (MCSL), commenting on the successful “Hijab Awareness Exhibition” held at the Race Course here.
And Ahamad ought to know, for in the heyday of the Rajapaksa regime, the MCSL had been forced to appeal to Muslim women to abjure black abayas (cloaks) so as not to invite the wrath of the BBS.
Hundreds of Muslim and non-Muslim men and women thronged the stalls exhibiting colorful headscarves and abayas of every hue. Muslim girls from English medium schools explained to visitors why they cover themselves up; what benefits accrue to women who cover up; and how covering up is not a reflection of female subjugation. Placards said: Before You Judge, Cover Up For a Day.
“Over 250 young women, including Buddhists and Christians, tried out the outfits, and over 200 hijabs were lapped up. We had to close only because the stalls ran out of hijabs!” an organizer told Express.
Shaahidah Riza refuted the view that covering up is an expression of Muslim identity or is a rebellion against Western culture. “It is just an expression of our love for God and the Prophet,” she said.
“ It is like protective armor. Men don’t mess with covered up women,” added Salma, a social worker.
Zaneeta Razaq saw covering up as a liberating devise. “Being covered up, people judge me not by my looks, but by my abilities,” she said.
But for Faizun Zackariya of Muslim Research Forum, covering up is part of the “homogenization” of Islam riding roughshod over Islamic cultural diversity. She warned that defining religious communities narrowly through enforced dress codes, could unleash forces like the Boko Haram of Nigeria.