The Sri Lankan government insisted Tuesday that preventing Muslim women from wearing a burqa or niqab was a national security move, as it faced protests over the decision.
Sri Lankan Muslims decried the measure as a new act of discrimination against their community, which accounts for 10 percent of the 21 million, Buddhist-majority population.
Colombo's nationalist government has taken a tough security line since suicide bomb attacks in April 2019 that killed 279 people.
The ban on the burqa, a traditional Islamic head-to-toe garment, and the niqab veil, was announced last Saturday with Public Security Minister Sarath Weerasekera saying they were symbols of Islamic extremism.
The minister said Sri Lanka would also shut down private madrasas, Islamic religious schools.
After a cabinet meeting Monday, government spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella said: "We will move forward on the basis of national security, nothing else."
He said there would be more cabinet talks before the ban is legalised and implemented.
- 'Walking without clothes' -
The burqa is a relatively rare sight in Sri Lanka, but Muslims expressed shock at the measure.
A 21-year-old accountancy student who identified herself as Aysha said that "going out without a niqab is like walking without clothes, but I will cover my face with a face mask".
She questioned why a niqab was unacceptable when masks had been mandatory in public since the coronavirus pandemic erupted.
Silma Mohideen, a counsellor for women, said Muslim women also faced hostility when the government temporarily banned face coverings after the 2019 attacks, carried out by local jihadists.
"When suddenly they are being asked to take it (the niqab) off, it is almost impossible for them and they say it feels like they are being asked to walk naked on the road," Mohideen told AFP.
Sri Lanka's Muslim Council has accused the government of making Muslims a symbol of hate to win the votes of the Sinhala Buddhist majority.
Muslim Council spokesman Hilmy Ahamed highlighted how the government had forcibly cremated more than 350 Muslims who died of the coronavirus, ignoring pleas to allow burials in line with Islamic funeral rites.
The government only halted the forced cremations this month after pressure from the 57-nation Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Burials, however, are only allowed in one remote location.
"Every aspect of our lives has come under scrutiny. It is made to look like it is the Muslims who are responsible for every misery faced by Sri Lanka," said Mohideen.
Muslim rights activist Shreen Saroor said Sri Lanka may have been emboldened by the narrow referendum vote in Switzerland last week to ban full facial coverings in public.
"Sri Lanka has been taking wrong examples from all over the world," she said.
Pakistan's High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, Saad Khattak, warned that the proposed ban "will only serve as injury to the feelings of ordinary Sri Lankan Muslims and Muslims across the globe".
The proposed ban comes ahead of a debate at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva next week on a motion urging Colombo to ensure minority religious rights.