Sri Lanka Blocks Exam Results over Muslim Head Coverings

Human Rights

Government officials in Sri Lanka are withholding exam results from 70 Muslim women and girls because their head coverings allegedly covered their ears while they took their exams. The decision violates the students’ right to freedom of religion and further entrenches discrimination widely experienced by Muslims in Sri Lanka.

The students, many from relatively low-income families living near the eastern city of Trincomalee, took their A-levels (advanced level) in January. Instead of the more tight-fitting hijab, they wore loose, “transparent” white shawls to cover their heads to comply with a regulation that candidates’ ears must be visible to prevent cheating. Those supervising allowed the exam to proceed.

Nevertheless, the government’s Department of Examination determined the students had worn hijabs, which could have allowed them to conceal Bluetooth earpieces, and withheld their results when other students received their exam grades on May 31. They now risk being denied a chance for a university education.

Activists and teachers said Muslim girls often face barriers to education within their own communities, and these students, who had overcome such obstacles, have fallen victim to “anti-Muslim sentiment.” There have been previous disputes in Trincomalee over Muslim dress in the education sector. Muslim A-level candidates do not appear to have experienced the same discrimination anywhere else in Sri Lanka, although 13 women sitting a teachers’ exam in Colombo, the capital, reportedly faced a similar challenge in 2023.

Sri Lanka has repeatedly imposed regulations that discriminate against the country’s Muslim minority in recent years. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the government banned the burial of people said to have died with the virus, causing immense distress to bereaved Muslim families whose religion prohibits cremation. There have been repeated incidents of anti-Muslim violence, provoked or exacerbated by false claims promoted with impunity by officials and government supporters.

While it is necessary for authorities to ensure the integrity of exams, measures should not discriminate against students on the basis of religion or gender. Rigorous searches of all candidates entering the exam room are already in effect in Sri Lanka. Denying these students their A-levels will cause them significant harm, while belying government claims that it seeks harmony and reconciliation among communities. 

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