Authorities in Sri Lanka on Monday banned women from wearing niqab - face veils also known as burqa - under an emergency law put in place after deadly Easter Sunday attacks by Islamist extremists.
The measures would help security forces to identify people as a hunt for any remaining attackers and their support network continues across the Indian Ocean island, authorities said.
But there are concerns within the Muslim community that a prolonged ban could fuel tensions in the religiously-diverse nation that emerged from a civil war with ethnic minority Tamil separatists a decade ago.
Officials have warned that the militants behind the April 21 suicide bombings on hotels and churches that killed over 250 people were planning more attacks, using a van and bombers disguised in military uniforms.
“It is a presidential order to ban any dress covering faces with immediate effect,” Dharmasri Bandara Ekanayake, a spokesman for President Maithripala Sirisena, told Reuters.
Separately, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is feuding with Sirisena, issued a statement saying he had asked the justice minister to draft regulations to ban the niqab.
The All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (ACJU), the top body of Islamic scholars in Sri Lanka, said they supported a short-term ban on security grounds, but opposed any attempt to legislate against niqab.
“We have given guidance to the Muslim women to not to cover their faces in this emergency situation,” ACJU assistant manager Farhan Faris said after the scholars asked the government to drop plans for a law against the burqa and niqab.
“If you make it a law, people will become emotional and this will bring another bad impact ... it is their religious right,” he told Reuters.
About 9.7 percent of Sri Lanka’s roughly 22 million people are Muslim. Only a small minority of women, usually in Muslim areas, fully hide their faces.
Human Rights Watch condemned the ban.
“That needless restriction means that Muslim women whose practice leads them to cover up now won’t be able to leave home,” the group’s executive director Kenneth Roth tweeted.
In Kattankudy, the Muslim-majority hometown of Mohamed Hashim Mohamed Zahran, the suspected leader of the militant group behind the attacks, there few women in the streets and none had their faces covered.
Two women declined to be interviewed by Reuters. Residents said only a small percentage of women in the town wear the niqab.
Owais Ibrahim, a Muslim shopkeeper, said he supported a ban on face coverings for security reasons.
“If it is not allowed it is not a problem,” he told Reuters. “If we are living in Sri Lanka, we must respect their rules.”
Muslims fear for their safety
On Thursday, hundreds of Muslim refugees in western Sri Lanka have taken refuge in mosques and a police station after facing intimidation following the deadly Easter bombings, activists told AFP.
Scores of Ahmadi Muslims who settled in Negombo after fleeing persecution in their home countries have been thrown out of their accommodation by landlords, according to officials.
"Today these refugees have become refugees again in Sri Lanka. They have been displaced for a second time," Ruki Fernando of Inform, a Sri Lankan human rights group, told reporters.
The refugees are from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Iran. Ahmadis have faced repeated attacks in these countries by hardline Islamist groups who do not consider them to be Muslim.
Relations between Ahmadis and native Sri Lankans have long been tense with many locals in Negombo accusing the refugees of driving up rent prices.
Ahmadis complain of harassment while rights groups accuse Sri Lanka's government of not doing enough to protect the community.
Fernando said homeowners had evicted the refugees because they feared their properties would be targeted by groups seeking revenge for the bomb blasts which were carried out by Islamist extremists.
Many others have fled of their own accord, fearing for their safety.
"Some unknown people broke into their houses in Negombo and beat them," Fernando told reporters.
He said numbers had yet to be verified but around 700 refugees were believed to have sought shelter in one Negombo mosque.
Around 120 were at a police station while several hundred more were at another mosque in Pasyala, in Gampaha, 25 kilometres (15 miles) from Negombo.
*This story was edited and compiled by Ahram Online